Soccer is a funny game. Virtually every league in the world has that one pitch, that one venue that just acts as a trick room of sorts, baiting opposition teams in with the hope they can overcome the 12th player that is the field itself. New York City Football Club and the minuscule Yankee Stadium are that duo in MLS, and will probably retain that designation until the club can finally open the doors on a true soccer-specific-stadium of its own.
Gonzalo Pineda and co. are very aware of the challenges involved in playing on that tiny pitch that’s piggybacked onto a baseball field, having lost in the first round of the playoffs there in 2021. But they’ve also found some success in the most recent iteration; the team pulled a 2-2 draw back in July of 2022.
The last win in the Bronx, though? The 2018 playoff run that culminated in Atlanta United hoisting the MLS Cup.
On a foggy Tuesday morning at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground, only one player emerged onto the pitch who was a part of that historic run: Brad Guzan. The rest of the team will be looking to change that stat as they try to snag another three road points this weekend.
The training ground itself was roped off into small segments, with a variety of agility posts staked into what looked like slaloms or gates within a 40 x 40 square, and another section consisted of a simple small-sided pitch.
Rondo before the actual drills. @GonzoPineda8 setting up this week obviously for the size pitch in New York.— ⚽️Scarves and Spikes LIVE 4/5, 7p ET (@ScarvesNSpikes) April 4, 2023
One is 10v10 focusing on breaking lines by passing through gates on a 40x40 pitch. Other is small 7v7 where goals only count if that team is fully in the attacking half. pic.twitter.com/nYxWVv9Tsw
The players began warm-ups and some passing drills that involved playing quick, short passes around opposition players. Andrew Gutman was among the squad who started practice before breaking off to work solo with a trainer, which is a good sign as he recovers from his injury sustained against Columbus.
Meanwhile, Pineda took a few moments to carry on the new tradition of explaining to the media the drills for the day.
The aforementioned 40 x 40 segment with the gates consisted of teams playing through those gates to simulate line-breaking passes. There were no goals in this particular drill; points were scored as the teams made accurate passes through the agility posts. When a player received the ball, they could only take a max of two touches. It was another fast-paced, controlled-chaos scrimmage to create the environment the squad will experience on Saturday.
The players then moved to the small-sided pitch where they played 7 vs 7 rounds, including goalkeepers. The caveat to this drill was that if a team scored a goal, it only counted if all outfield players were in the attacking half of the pitch. Pineda explained this as more of a “mindset” drill, as Atlanta is going to want to force their game on NYCFC by pinning them deep when possible.
7v7 with keepers. Scoring a goal only counts if every player on the attacking team (minus keeper, obviously) is in the attacking half. #ATLUTD #WeAreTheA pic.twitter.com/PgIo3w4cvG— Tyler Pilgrim (@ATLPilgrim) April 4, 2023
Training wrapped up and media was joined by Juanjo Purata and Machop Chol to discuss the most recent win over the Red Bulls and the upcoming trip to New York proper.
En inglés again! @JuanjoPurata14 spoke about being told of the challenges playing at Yankee Stadium, and mentioned how lessons from the Red Bulls game could be applied there. Also spoke of the team playing good football but also having “fight” they didn’t have last year..1/2 pic.twitter.com/OO3SWZX0qJ— Tyler Pilgrim (@ATLPilgrim) April 4, 2023
For the second time in a few weeks, Purata took the podium and gave his interview in (outstanding) English. He said the team has told him about playing at Yankee Stadium and the inherent challenges that go along with the size of the pitch, but mentioned that the lessons they learned from the Red Bulls match could be applied in many similar ways.
Purata also noted his success in the last match when asked, and spoke about his goal-saving tackle inside the box where he “invited the player outside” and then went to ground as he went to take the shot. He had praise aplenty for Caleb Wiley, too, describing him as a kid who loves to attack but does incredibly well defending, and one who understands when to switch back and forth between those responsibilities. Finally, he spoke about the “fight” the team has shown, especially in the last match, saying it was essentially something they needed to add to their tool belt. Purata said the team could play “good football” but also showed they can “fight...in a good way.”
This man glows with pride talking about his time with South Sudan @CholMachop said he sometimes gets teary eyed because his first time going back there was with the national team, as he was born in 98 and moved here in 2000. Said teammates often ask about Atlanta and 1/3 pic.twitter.com/BlYTmsKu6D— Tyler Pilgrim (@ATLPilgrim) April 4, 2023
Purata finished his interview before stepping away, and Machop Chol approached a few moments later. He spoke about his recent matches playing as a number 9 instead of a winger, pointing out that he played a season with Wake Forest at that position. He noted that playing as a winger, though, consisted of being confident in aspects of the game like taking on defenders 1v1 and trusting the rest of the team to win back possession if they cough up the ball.
More than anything, however, Machop just seemed to truly enjoy speaking of his time representing South Sudan. The national team call-ups are not only an incredible source of pride for him, as they should be, but also an opportunity to reconnect with family that he would otherwise have trouble seeing. He pointed out that he was born in 1998 and moved to the States in 2000, and the first time he ever met some of his family from South Sudan was when he got called to represent the team. In the most recent international window he said his relatives were able to trek to the training ground to visit and watch.
The whole story was remarkable because of its simplicity in the fact that playing the game he enjoys is what was ultimately able to connect him with relatives across the world.
“Speaking of it brings a tear to my eye,” he said, grinning.
For what it’s worth, South Sudan’s next match is in June, in case anyone needs another national team to cheer for.
The Five Stripes are back on the road to face NYCFC Saturday at 7:30 as they attempt to keep pushing towards the top of the table. Also, be sure to give us your thoughts and comments below!