Atlanta United’s approach for Saturday: Starters missing, no problem

Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan during the first half of the match against Orlando City at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday March 17, 2024. (Photo by Alex Slitz/Atlanta United)

Credit: Alex Slitz/Atlanta United

Credit: Alex Slitz/Atlanta United

Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan during the first half of the match against Orlando City at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday March 17, 2024. (Photo by Alex Slitz/Atlanta United)

Gonzalo Pineda is confident enough in his team that despite it missing seven players, including all three Designated Players as part of five starters, for Saturday’s match at Toronto, he said Thursday that it’s likely that the formation and the concepts they have worked on won’t change.

“We’ve been working this year, a lot, on us a lot,” Pineda said. “Regardless of who we playing, we are trying to play exactly the same way. And so it would be unfair for me, we’ve been training for what, two, three months now, and then suddenly I changed the system just because we have a couple absences. So I’m going to just put the players that have been training in the same system, and we’ll go from there.”

What the team has worked on has worked well enough that Atlanta United is 2-1-0 with six goals scored and two allowed. But many of the players who put in that work won’t be there on what should be a very cold night in Canada. Gone will be striker and leading-scorer Giorgos Giakoumakis (four goals), attacking midfielder Thiago Almada, central midfielder Bartosz Slisz, centerback Stian Gregersen and fullback Caleb Wiley, as well as reserve players Jay Fortune and Luis Abram. With the exception of Gregersen, who sustained a knee injury in Sunday’s win against Orlando, the rest will miss because they were called into their national teams.

Atlanta United’s roster is depleted enough that Pineda said an unnamed midfielder from Atlanta United 2 will be called up to the first team.

It will be only the 11th time that Atlanta United will go into a game without any of its DPs in the starting lineup. It is 2-4-4 in those matches, the last being a 2-0 loss at Columbus on Nov. 1.

Pineda joked that “he’s a genius” because during the preseason he mixed and matched a lot of different lineups, in part because he, his staff and the players knew that during FIFA international windows there would be several absences.

So they said they are treating this game like an opportunity.

“It’s an exciting week where we can test the depth of the team,” Pineda said. “We can see them, again the emphasis of winning away and without some of the key players, of course, but I’m certain about one thing: The players I put on Saturday, they’re going to be ready to fight, and they’re going to be ready to compete for the result.”

Just because several starters will be missing, the team still has experienced depth. Dax McCarty, with 467 regular-season appearances, likely will start in place of Slisz. Ronald Hernandez, with 37 appearances, likely will start in place of Wiley at left fullback. Jamal Thaire, with more 200 appearances in France, likely will start in place of Giakoumakis.

Noah Cobb, a Homegrown signee, seems likely to start in place of Gregersen. Pineda praised Cobb, only 18 years old, for his performances during the preseason, saying he was a totally different, better player than last season. Replacing Almada may be the biggest decision Pineda will have to make. The team is 3-6-3 when Almada, who finished as an MLS MVP finalist last season, isn’t in the starting lineup.

Nic Firmino played there during the preseason and performed well. Tyler Wolff, a Homegrown signee with 37 appearances, and Derrick Etienne, with 169 appearances, mostly as a winger, also are possibilities. Based upon Pineda espousing a plug-and-play approach, it seems unlikely that he will move Saba Lobjanidze from the wing into the spot.

Whoever plays, midfielder Tristan Muyumba said it’s important they believe in themselves.

“Yeah, it’s a good opportunity for them to be in with the first team, to travel with the first team,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to bring more experience for them. And the best advice I can give is to stay yourself. And if you have the opportunity to play a few minutes, just be yourself. If you are there, it’s because you got some quality. So stay yourself.”

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Atlanta United’s 2024 schedule

Feb. 24 Columbus 1, Atlanta United 0

March 9 Atlanta United 4, New England 1

March 17 Atlanta United 2, Orlando 0

March 23 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

March 31 vs. Chicago, 3:30 p.m., FOX

April 6 at NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

April 14 vs. Philadelphia, 2:30 p.m., FOX

April 20 vs. Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

April 27 at Chicago, 8:30 p.m.

May 4 vs. Minnesota, 7:30 p.m.

May 11 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

May 15 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

May 18 at Nashville, 1:30 p.m.

May 25 vs. LAFC, 7:30 p.m.

May 29 at Miami, 7:30 p.m.

June 2 vs Charlotte, 4:30 p.m., FOX

June 15 vs. Houston, 7:30 p.m.

June 19 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 22 at St. Louis, 8:30 p.m.

June 29 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

July 3 at New England, 7:30 p.m.

July 6 at Real Salt Lake, 9:30 p.m.

July 13 at Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 17 vs. NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

July 20 vs. Columbus, 7:30 p.m.

July 26 vs. D.C. United in Leagues Cup, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 4 vs. Santos Laguna in Leagues Cup, 4 p.m.

Aug. 24 at L.A. Galaxy, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 31 at Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14 vs. Nashville, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 18 vs. Miami, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 28 at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 2 vs. Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 5 vs. Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 19 at Orlando, 6 p.m.