It was a feast for the eyes at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground.

The club’s all-time top scorer, the fastest player in MLS history to score 100 goals, was back in training with Atlanta United. On May 7, Josef Martínez returned approximately six weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to clear debris from his right knee.

“Josef is a really important player for this team, obviously on the pitch and also off the pitch for the squad,” said defender Alan Franco. “He’s an important player for us, so we’re very happy to have him back in training.”

Martínez joined the squad for rondos and passing drills. Then the whole team broke up. Most of the weekend’s starters went inside the facility and Martínez went across the court to work with fitness coach Jack Kimber and sports performance director Ryan Alexander on a form individual physique.

The remaining players stayed for possession games and small-scale competition, led primarily by assistant coaches Diego de la Torre and Rob Valentino. During the competition, the teams took turns moving the ball quickly in transition play, getting quick shots on goal.

The competition put young goalkeepers Justin Garces and Rocco Ríos Novo on the spot and both put up some great plays. Garces dove to block Emerson Hyndman’s shot, then jumped to his feet to block another. Ríos Novo denied Dom Dwyer before conceding a skillfully placed shot into the top corner from Mikey Ambrose.

After the competition, Valentino brought the players together to conclude training with a huddle. Then Tyler Wolff stayed behind to enter the goal while Amar Sejdić fired a few direct free kicks. Finally, the goalkeepers worked on clearances. All the while, Martínez was always on the other side of the pitch and was one of the last players to leave the pitch.

Here are some additional thoughts and observations on this week’s practice.

Music City Revenge Game

The team are coming off a demanding week that began with a 4-1 win over Chicago FC and a 2-2 draw against the New England Revolution at home. Meanwhile, the team also played a midweek match in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.

On May 11, Atlanta United traveled to GEODIS Park in a bid to steal a win and knock the home side out of US Open Cup competition at their brand new venue. Atlanta was close to doing just that, having a two-goal halftime lead and leading late in second-half stoppage time. However, Nashville SC pressed and found the equalizer late. Nashville scored in the first extra period and survived the 5-cushions 3-2 to advance to the knockout stages.

Now, Atlanta United is making its second trip to Nashville SC this season for a nationally televised MLS game on Saturday, May 21. Only 10 days separate meetings between the two teams, and the loss is fresh in the minds of Atlanta players.

“It’s a game we’ve been looking forward to since last Wednesday,” striker Ronaldo Cisneros said. “So even though they eliminated us from the [U.S. Open] Cup, we see a bit of a game of revenge. Despite our elimination, we really want to win and win the games we have in front of us. So that’s our goal and what we’re working towards.

With Nashville SC entering the Western Conference this season, this is the only time Atlanta United will see them play in MLS and Nashville will have home-court advantage. The club’s new enclosure, GEODIS Park, opened its doors at the beginning of May. The home side are yet to lose there, so the 5 cushions will focus on ruining that streak for the regional rival.

“Every day we work and prepare in different ways for the next opponent we’re going to face,” Franco said. “So even though it was a loss there, we showed what this team is about. We’re a young team, we’re going to keep working hard and giving our best against Nashville.

Lineup changes

Player availability has been a challenge for Atlanta to have consistency so far in 2022, and head coach Gonzalo Pineda has started a different XI almost every game. Earlier this season, some players were called up for international duty for World Cup qualifiers. The team also had an unlucky streak with injuries, including injuries to veterans Ozzie Alonso and Brad Guzan that were moved to the season-ending injury list.

However, the depth and youth of the team allowed them to show resilience. New leaders are beginning to emerge, such as Matheus Rossetto, the Brazilian midfielder who donned the captaincy for the first time in club history on May 11 against Nashville SC.

“It can be difficult,” Franco said of the rotating lineups. “But we are a young team and we always train 100% so that the next person can come in, in case of an emergency. We have guys who can step in, and I think you’ve seen that with the injuries we’ve had. It is something that is good for the group, that we always have these players ready to intervene, in any situation.

When asked the same question, Cisneros alluded to a specific example: the injury of centre-back Miles Robinson. Winner of the MLS Best XI award last season, Robinson has been a leader for Atlanta United. When Guzan ruptured his Achilles tendon and was moved to the season-ending injured list, Robinson took the captain’s armband.

However, Robinson suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in the 4-1 win over Chicago Fire FC on May 7. Pineda sent Alex De John as a replacement, and for the next MLS game against the New England Revolution, De John started at centre-back.

“I think it speaks to the quality we have in this team and in depth, which I think is a big strength for us – that we know we still have these hard-working players to come in.” said Cisneros.

good things to come

Heading into Saturday’s game in Nashville, Atlanta United sits in seventh place near the middle of the Eastern Conference standings with 15 points. The team is currently on a 13-game unbeaten streak at home.

The team has been showing some brilliance lately, especially from the individual artists. For two consecutive weeks, Atlanta United had a player representing the club on the league’s Team of the Week. On Monday, midfielder Thiago Almada earned the honor for his goal and assist against New England. The previous week, Cisneros earned a spot for their first-half hat-trick against Chicago Fire FC. Cisneros was also named MLS Player of the Week for Performance. It was the fourth time in club history that an Atlanta United player had received the award.

“We know we lost points, otherwise we would be higher in the standings, but the most important thing is always the squad,” Cisneros said. “If we continue to operate as we are and stay on this path, then you know there are good things ahead of us.”

After Saturday’s game in Nashville, the club will have the chance to continue their unbeaten streak at home and rack up the points by hosting back-to-back MLS games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The team will also play at home on June 14 when they host current Liga MX top-ranked club Pachuca FC for the inaugural American Family Insurance Cup.

So with the next streak and Martínez coming back from injury, Atlanta United fans have a lot to look forward to this summer.

“As players, we are also upset that we weren’t able to give the wins to the fans because they support us in every game and they deserve those wins from us,” Franco said. “So what I can say is we’re working hard to try to move on and try to give the fans the wins they deserve.”