Things learned from Atlanta United’s first exhibition match

Credit: Mitchell Martin/Atlanta United

Credit: Mitchell Martin/Atlanta United

Atlanta United admittedly has a lot of work to do after it opened its exhibition season with a 3-3 draw Saturday against host Chattanooga.

Manager Gonzalo Pineda said he told his assistants that he was upset after watching a group composed of first-teamers give up three goals in the first 45 minutes, despite the team spending much of its first sessions in training camp in improving its defense.

None of the goals were highlight-reel efforts by Chattanooga. All were the result of mistakes by Atlanta United players, some of which were reminiscent of moments in last year’s games.

ExploreLuiz Araujo scores 2 as Atlanta United plays Chattanooga to draw

But it wasn’t all bad. Luiz Araujo scored twice. Brad Guzan and Miles Robinson returned. The team also honored deceased teammate Anton Walkes with armbands.

“I take a lot out of these matches,” Pineda said. “We can see a lot of mistakes that we had but also a lot of good actions. I really think that Chattanooga plays good football, and they’re (a) very good team. So it was a good challenge for us. And we will continue the evolution of the preseason.”

Here are a few things learned from a match that shouldn’t be used to form opinions on what to expect the rest of the season:

Luiz Araujo delivers. The Brazilian said a few days ago that he wants to score more goals this season than the four he contributed last year. He said on Saturday that it was a confidence boost to open with two.

The first came on a penalty kick won by Andrew Gutman in the 11th minute. The same came when he smartly and stealthily pressed a Chattanooga defender in the penalty box, took the ball as the player tried to turn and had an empty net to shoot into in the 42nd minute.

“Happy for Luiz,” Pineda said. “I think it’s important for him and he really wants to show a different phase this year, and showing like this in a preseason game is good for him.”

In a tactical wrinkle, instead of playing wide on the wing, Araujo played more centrally with Brooks Lennon running up and down the sideline. Araujo said Pineda is giving him more freedom to interchange with Lennon, who will play as a right fullback or right wingback.

Brad Guzan and Miles Robinson back at it. This was the first action for Guzan and Robinson since each suffered Achilles ruptures in separate games last season. Guzan stood out mostly for a mistake he made that allowed Chattanooga’s first goal. Robinson was mostly quiet.

“Miles and I, we were just talking before the game going out into the field, it’s been a long nine months, it’s been a long journey,” Guzan said. “So to be back out there, regardless of the performance, was a step in the right direction. And the thing about preseason is use these games to get better. And we can only get better after that first 45 minutes.”

On the first goal allowed, Guzan said he was trying to prevent a ball from going out for a corner kick. As he dove to catch the ball, it bounced off his hands and to a Chattanooga player, who passed it to a teammate to shoot into an open goal. Guzan said the goal was his fault.

Pineda didn’t seem too worried afterward.

“They will get better with time,” he said. “They’re fantastic players, and we miss them. So now that we have them back is my job just to take care of them and put them in the right path for success for the whole season.”

The other two goals. The other two goals scored by Chattanooga could be chalked up to rust, or they could be worrisome. It depends upon how much grace you want to give.

The second came after the ball took a deflection on a shot. It landed at the feet of a Chattanooga player near the center of the box about 6 yards from goal. He took a touch to his left, waited on Lennon to commit and then a put shot past Guzan at a tight angle.

The original shot should have been closed down by an Atlanta United player.

The third goal came when a Chattanooga player shook off two tackle attempts down the right wing and then passed to an open teammate about 7 yards from goal. Had it not been an exhibition game, the tackle attempts may have been more robust. Even so, the scorer shouldn’t have been unmarked in the box. That’s a problem going back to last year.

Perhaps more worrisome is that Chattanooga scored each within minutes of Atlanta United scoring. That lack of focus was also a problem much of last season.

“We will get better, we will get better,” Pineda said.

The ineffective midfield. The midfield trio of Santiago Sosa, Franco Ibarra and Matheus Rossetto didn’t control the game. There were lots of turnovers and an inability to stop Chattanooga from breaking lines.

Pineda said there was a reason.

Thiago Almada was a late scratch because of a minor “knock” that Pineda said wasn’t serious. Because of that, Sosa was a late add. Moving him into the lineup as the defensive midfielder forced Rossetto to move into the attacking position and Ibarra to move up and play as a central midfielder alongside Rossetto in some situations.

Pineda said Ibarra hadn’t trained at the position and didn’t know the movements. Pineda said Ibarra is good enough to learn how to play each position.

It was supposed to work like this in attack, according to Pineda: When Atlanta United had the ball, Ibarra was supposed to drop back beside Sosa to give Almada and Araujo more space inside and more space to the “airplanes (Lennon and Gutman)” on the wings outside running behind Chattanooga’s last line.

The armband. Atlanta United’s players came out wearing black armbands with “AW” in white letters. Pineda said he doesn’t know whose idea it was and doesn’t know if they will be worn all season. He became slightly emotional when talking about Walkes, who died after a boating accident in mid-January in South Florida.

Walkes twice played for Atlanta United in 2017 and then in 2020-21, which is when Pineda coached him.

“Anton was a big part of Atlanta United, and you don’t need too much time to fall in love with that kid, that was full of passion and love for the game, love for the teammates, and we all miss Anton Walkes, and I hope we can honor him on and off the field because he was a great guy,” Pineda said.

“... The best thing we can do on a daily basis is honor a good man and fantastic teammate that was with Atlanta United. So the best thing we can do is internally honor him in our daily effort, our daily lives.”

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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule

Feb. 25 vs. San Jose Earthquakes, 7:30 p.m.

March 4 vs. Toronto FC, 7:30 p.m.

March 11 at Charlotte FC, noon, Fox

March 18 vs. Portland Timbers, 7:30 p.m.

March 25 at Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.

April 1 vs. New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

April 8 at New York City FC, 7:30 p.m.

April 15 at Toronto FC, 7:30 p.m.

April 23 vs. Chicago Fire FC, 4:30 p.m., FS1

April 29 at Nashville SC, 1:30 p.m., Fox

May 6 at Inter Miami CF, 7:30 p.m.

May 13 vs. Charlotte FC, 7:30 p.m.

May 17 vs. Colorado Rapids, 7:30 p.m.

May 20 at Chicago Fire FC, 8:30 p.m.

May 27 at Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m.

May 31 vs. New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m., FS1

June 3 at Los Angeles FC, 10:30 p.m.

June 10 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 21 vs. New York City FC, 7:30 p.m.

June 24 at New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

July 2 vs. Philadelphia Union, 4 p.m., Fox

July 8 at CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 12 at New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m.

July 15 vs. Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m., FS1

Aug. 20 at Seattle Sounders, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 26 vs. Nashville SC, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 30 vs. FC Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 2 at FC Dallas, 8:30 p.m.

Sept. 16 vs. Inter Miami CF, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 20 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 23 vs. CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 4 at Philadelphia Union, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 7 vs. Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 21 at FC Cincinnati, TBA