If you know Atlanta United, you should have heard of head coach Gonzalo Pineda’s birthday tradition. If not, here’s a quick summary: The team celebrates birthdays after practice, and that usually involves the birthday guy getting a cake smashed in his face.
This week, something special happened. The anniversary aligned with media availability. So when Jake Mulraney took to the mic to answer questions from local media, there was a bit of cake on his face and remnants of frosting on his workout kit.
“Do you mind if I do it like that?” Mulraney asked reporters.
The Irishman’s birthday was yesterday, and today the team celebrated it. Mulraney said, importantly, the cake tasted like an Oreo cookie.
It was a fun little moment – and it’s unclear whether or not Mulraney was distracted answering questions by the piece of chocolate stuck over his mouth (although the small smile he got from time to time then that he was giving an answer suggested that he might be thinking about it).
Before Mulraney’s notable and sweet appearance, the team practiced on a foggy and overcast Wednesday morning. Players went through distancing drills before moving on to conditioning. Then the players split up to work on competitive 1-on-1 shots and defend on four regulation-sized goals. Later, the groups met on a pitch to work on transition play in a 2v1, 3v2 drill.
During this part of practice, there were several good moments: Bobby Shuttleworth hit a save so hard he echoed. Santiago Sosa hit a curling shot from one touch into the net. Assistant coach Rob Valentino encouraged Caleb Wiley: “Don’t give up the game! and Wiley came with the takeout. Noah Cobb made a great shot, then quickly transitioned to turn around and block one on the other end. Amar Sejdić made a tightly overlapping run defended by Andrew Gutman, then blasted the ball out from the corner for Mikey Ambrose to finish.
Here are some additional observations and insights from the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground on Wednesday:
Highs and lows
The team oscillates between highs and lows. On Saturday, the team beat DC United 1-0 on a stoppage time goal from Marcelino Moreno, a performance that earned him a place in the MLS Team of the Week for the first time in 2022. It was the club’s third win of the season. and first on the road.
Saturday was the third time this season that Atlanta United had scored a goal to change the outcome of a game in the final moments; the second victory. Recovering their way after falling behind in games has been the team’s MO so far this season.
“I feel like we never stop,” Mulraney said. “It shows our character and it also shows our quality, our fitness as well, to continue. I feel like I’ve always said it since I’ve been here, we have the quality and the team to make things happen every time.
While the team peaked on Saturday, they also had to deal with some tough news. On Tuesday, the club announced updates for three starters injured during the game: midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, midfielder Mattheus Rossetto and striker Josef Martínez.
Alonso tore his ACL and his timeline is TBD. Rossetto has injured his left hamstring and will be out for 2-4 weeks. Martínez has experienced discomfort in his right knee and the club will provide an update later this week.
“It’s hard to see because they’re our teammates and they’re good people, so you don’t want to see them go through that,” midfielder Franco Ibarra said. “But we are a team so we support them, and we have other players.”
Considering the recovery time and his presence on the pitch, Alonso’s injury mostly looks like a massive loss. The 36-year-old midfielder has played more than 13 seasons in MLS. He joined Atlanta United this offseason as a free agent and played a total of 90 in every game he started for all 5 cushions. His veteran presence on the pitch was incredibly valuable to a growing young team.
“It’s obviously never nice to see guys hurt, especially Ozzie,” Mulraney said. “A great guy, a great player. So, it’s quite sad.
Martínez came off in the 61st minute against DC United and said he felt discomfort in his knee. The forward went to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for re-examination, so he was not in training on Wednesday.
Mulraney spoke with Martínez last game and said he hoped Martínez would return as soon as possible.
“It’s not just the quality you miss, it’s the presence,” Mulraney said. “You miss his presence. He has a pretty good presence in the locker room to inspire people to improve their game.”
Atlanta United have some depth to their roster, at least in part, to help fill those notable absences. Up top, it could mean more playing time for forwards Jackson Conway and Dom Dwyer. (Add Ronaldo Cisneros to the mix; the forward on loan from Chivas arrived in Atlanta this week.)
“We’re all a team, so we all work together as a team,” Ibarra said. “Everyone is on the same page and trying to do their best to help the group. So whatever player the coach decides to play, I think he is capable of doing the job.
Two other players who could step in midfield this week are Ibarra and Sosa. Both players arrived late in Atlanta after waiting for their visas in Argentina. Both players also suffered injuries before the start of the season. Sosa from a sports hernia operation he underwent in the fall, Ibarra from a minor injury he suffered during pre-season.
“Personally, I feel good,” Ibarra said. “I missed playing, I was absent. But little by little, I feel better every day.
However, both players also return. Sosa gradually saw more playing time, spending 12 minutes in the 3-3 draw against CF Montreal on March 19. Against DC United last weekend, Sosa and Ibarra entered the game as substitutes. Sosa came on at half-time for Rossetto. Ibarra came on in the 62nd minute for Alonso. It was Ibarra’s first appearance of the season.
On Wednesday after training, Ibarra met the media and spoke about his relationship with Sosa. The two players, both Argentinian and who joined the club in 2021, are good friends.
“You can see the passion with which we play in midfield,” Ibarra said. “I think we get along well. We talk to each other, we listen to each other, so we have good relations on the ground.
Mulraney also reflected on some of the relationships he builds on the pitch. Mulraney was in the starting XI against DC United. Pineda said after the game that he liked the way Mulraney worked with fellow starters Moreno and Thiago Almada. The three got creative in attack, looking to send balls past DC United’s backline to set up their teammates.
“I’m great with both guys off the pitch, so it makes a huge difference on the pitch,” Mulraney said. “Marcelino and Thiago are really, really nice players, really technical players. I feel like they would increase your game by five, 10% definitely.
Pick up waypoints
The victory at Audi Field on Saturday was the first on the road for Atlanta United this season. The team will look to build on that success with three more road games this month.
Players know the importance of picking up points on the road. On Wednesday, Jake Mulraney echoed what Gutman said last week and emphasized that good teams get points on the road.
“From the outside, maybe it looks a little bit easier when we’re playing the Benz or we have a little more advantage at the Benz,” Mulraney said. “We still have to go and do the same as us.”
Next, Atlanta United will face Charlotte FC for the second and final game between the two Eastern Conference clubs this season. This is the first game ever between the two clubs on Carolina soil. Kickoff will take place at Bank of America Stadium, the venue Charlotte FC shares with its NFL counterpart, the Carolina Panthers.
The two teams have already met on March 13 at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Charlotte played against Atlanta United, but the 5-Stripes defended their home turf and won the inaugural game 2-1 behind a winning goal from Mulraney.
To prepare for Sunday, Atlanta United plans to analyze the different styles played by Charlotte in the previous game. But more importantly, Atlanta United remain focused on improving and enjoying the away points accumulation at the start of the season.
“We want to go out in every game and play the same no matter who the opponent is,” Ibarra said. “We just want to keep working and playing the way we want.”