For the first time since possibly in the days after the season’s first game in Costa Rica, Atlanta United had almost its full complement of healthy players training together Wednesday.
The only two missing from the work being done ahead of Friday’s game at Orlando were fullback Brek Shea, who is out for the season, and centerback Franco Escobar, who manager Frank de Boer said should return soon from a hamstring injury sustained in last week’s win over Club America in the Campeones Cup. Midfielder Eric Remedi, who sat out last week’s Campeones Cup and the victory against Portland on Sunday, also trained Wednesday.
As Atlanta United is rounding into form as it looks to defend its MLS Cup, it also is deeper than it has been at any point this season, which de Boer said should result in the team playing even better than it has in winning seven of its past eight across all competitions. Those who aren’t playing are fighting to earn playing time from those who are.
“They have to push themselves to a higher level,” de Boer said. “It’s always for a coach nice to have options, especially when those options are quality players.”
Among those who haven’t played or trained a lot with the first team but were there Wednesday were fullback George Bello, who was the first-team starter in preseason but has yet to log a minute in MLS this season because of injuries, including one that happened in Costa Rica; striker Brandon Vazquez, who was the team’s best player in its early round wins in the U.S. Open Cup; and midfielder Kevin Kratz, who has made only one appearance, totaling one minute, with the team this season. Each played with Atlanta United 2 last week.
“We know we’ve created a roster from top to bottom that allows some flexibility without the dip in quality,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “When you have that, it creates problems for other teams. They look at our team and think they can come out a few different ways today. “
The depth comes just as Atlanta United nears the end of a stretch of eight games in 29 days that will include Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup championship game against Minnesota at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and will finish with a first-place showdown at Philadelphia on Aug. 31. After that, the team won’t play again until it hosts Columbus on Sept. 14. Just one player, Ezequiel Barco, so far has been called up by a national team (Argentina) to play during that break, which is a FIFA window for national-team games.
De Boer said he hopes to give the players time to re-charge ahead of the season’s final six games.
“We have to take care of the players and give them rest when we can,” he said. “Right now, we are involved in everything and want to be in first.”
De Boer said it’s unlikely that the team will go through the rest of the season unscathed, so it’s important that every player pushes themselves in training. This season, the team has already lost for at least one game because of injury or sickness Hector Villalba, Barco, Flo Pogba, Pity Martinez, Mikey Ambrose, Dion Pereira, Julian Gressel, Alec Kann, Vazquez, Shea, Kratz and Bello.
“That’s very important that they know I have to perform every week,” de Boer said. “If not, plan b is ready. That’s how it goes. They push you to a higher level. The guys behind you has to show in training if you aren’t ready, I’m ready.”