The frost on the ground was just beginning to melt away on Tuesday when Gonzalo Pineda and Atlanta United players stepped out onto the pitch at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground.
The squad is coming off a 2-1 preseason victory against Birmingham Legion next door in Alabama, and they’re ramping up for their next match vs Memphis 901 in Dawg country (Athens, for anyone not in the know). Media was able to view the morning session on Tuesday, one in which Pineda emphasized ball progression through the midfield on offense, and a steadfast desire to win the ball back on defense.
The drills started with a 4v4v3 drill, consisting of a very small pitch with both large goals at each end with a keeper (yes, everyone has been asking, Josh Cohen was training). In the center were four small nets, set two by two and back to back and facing toward each end of the pitch. Each team of four focused on progressing the ball through the midfielders and scoring, while the midfield trio had the responsibility of breaking up the attack going either way. If they won the ball, they could then score on any of the four goals in the center.
Here’s your Josh Cohen content yall— Tyler Pilgrim (@ATLPilgrim) January 30, 2024
Team working on midfield movement, playing through tight pressure, and winning the ball back quickly. pic.twitter.com/X1D4eXggD5
The second main drill was an 8v4 exercise - described as a player favorite - where the pitch was divided up into two larger halves and a thinner middle section. The thin, middle portion consisted of the team of four, while the two larger sections had teams of eight a piece.
The ball would be played out from the middle by Rob Valentino to one side of eight, and that squad would then have to make a minimum of four passes in their section before they could play it across to the other team of eight. Meanwhile, the midfield quartet were attempting to press - in an organized manner - to win the ball back. If they did, they could immediately turn and try and score on one of four small goals set on each corner of the pitch.
The ultimate goal of these sessions isn’t one single objective. Gonzalo Pineda and most players during the preseason have already mentioned sharpening up the defensive portion of the game. In fact, both Tyler Wolff and Dax McCarty spoke about it in the media availability after training.
“We want to control games from front to back,” said Wolff. “We were one of the highest scoring teams in the league. Our next step is just trying to be a cohesive team defensively.”
So the coaching staff has designed these drills to tick many boxes at once. The midfield on both sides of the ball is crucial when implementing a mid-block, but a lack of organization can be disastrous. Therefore, the sessions simultaneously focus on attack, defense, and possession with an emphasis on midfield players attempting to control the tempo.
“You can see there is a lot of thought put into how they want to approach preseason and training, and making sure all the players are on the same page,” noted McCarty. “The fans, especially last year, watching Atlanta United play during the last six months, they got used to seeing really energetic, exciting, attacking soccer. It was just a little bit on the other end of the field where we have to find that balance and tighten things up.”
The squad is also a week away from their Florida preseason trip, which by all accounts is paramount to the chemistry and closeness of the team. Not everything is solved by tactics and scrimmages; sometimes the best way to get to know the guy who’ll have your back in a situation is via the bonds you form doing activities totally unrelated to business.
“At this point of the year, I see my teammates more than I see my own family,” said McCarty, illustrating just how close they work together before the matches start coming in non-stop.
Aiden McFadden echoed this sentiment on an interview with the Scarves and Spikes podcast (sneak peak for y’all). “We’re seeing each other so often that at the end of the day, you just want to go eat or get coffee with the guys.”
Ultimately, it’s this preseason stretch that’s going to create much of the chemistry fans see on the pitch, which is why it’s so vital that everyone receive as much time as possible alongside peers. Keep an eye on that progression over the next three weeks as the Five Stripes take on Memphis and then head to Florida for their smorgasbord of away matches.
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