LAWRENCEVILLE — AJ Cochran surveyed the surroundings of Coolray Field and smiled.
“This stadium’s beautiful... I can’t wait for tomorrow night,” said Cochran, who along with the rest of his Atlanta United 2 teammates hope to launch a successful season and yet another chapter to the burgeoning soccer story in metro Atlanta when they kick off their inaugural campaign at 7 p.m. Saturday in Lawrenceville.
The “second squad” of MLS club Atlanta United, Atlanta United 2 acts in a similar manner to the original residents of Coolray, the Gwinnett Stripers, whom they now share the facility with.
And while United 2 is not purely a minor league franchise of the team that regularly plays in front of crowds of 45,000-72,000 in Mercedes Benz Stadium — United 2 does have 11 players signed exclusively to the club — members of the MLS club and it’s youth academy are eligible to play for United 2 within the structure of the 33-team strong United Soccer League (USL).
Despite its developmental pipeline, however, the USL also features independent clubs, those that are unaffiliated with any MLS franchise.
With Atlanta’s MLS club not playing this weekend, United 2 could well draw plenty of the fans that regularly fill up Mercedes Benz a little further north for the opener against New York Red Bulls II.
“(They’re a) good team; we’ve reviewed tape on them,” said Cochran, a 25-year-old defender for United 2 and a native of St. Louis. “We’re definitely worried about ourselves (first) always. We want to make sure we’re coming in as a good team and know what to expect of ourselves. They’re going to have some good players, and they won their first game, so they’re going to be coming in with a lot of confidence.”
If United 2 can muster up the same manner of home play that has marked the first team this season, fans could be in for a treat in the inaugural match.
After falling flat in a 4-0 road loss in the season opener at Houston, Atlanta United has since stormed to 3-1 and 4-1 home wins over D.C. United and Vancouver, respectively, and United 2 would love nothing more than to follow suit.
“I think we’re well prepared for them,” Cochran said.
Coach Scott Donnelly certainly hopes to give fans a taste of the attacking, flowing style that helped make Atlanta United a revelation in 2017.
“What we’re going to try to do is bring the same style of play the club is known for –– exciting, attacking, aggressive play –– up to Gwinnett County and try to be a version of the first team,” Donnelly said in a Q&A with the United website. “We don’t have the same guys but we want to play in the same way and challenge ourselves in that way.”
United 2 will not necessarily employ the exact same tactics, formations and strategy as the first team, but there will be a method to everything the second team does.
“The communication has flowed pretty easily (between United and United 2 coaching staffs),” Donnelly said online. “We have a group technical meeting every week led by (Atlanta United Technical Director) Carlos Bocanegra, who sets the technical standards for us as well. It’s great because (first team manager) Tata (Martino) obviously has had really big experiences as a coach, coaching some of the world’s biggest teams and players. But also he’s just a good person who wants to utilize our team for the right reasons in the right ways. He also gives us autonomy about how we do that. He, Carlos and the club has that trust in us.”
And after getting a taste of their new home turf with a Friday training session, United 2 players are raring for the opportunity — even with the occasional challenge that playing on a baseball diamond can present.
“It’s going to be a little difficult at times, but we’ll get used to it,” said Cochran, referring to the grass laid over the infield. “It was good we got out here the day before to get used to it. I think most of the guys understand that we’re going to be smarter on this part of the field, maybe not put ourselves in dangerous spots in this part of the field. We’re all pros here, and a lot of these guys have played in conditions like this before. I think we’re going to be just fine.”
One local is itching for his opportunity to test it out.
“I really liked it, and I can’t wait for tomorrow,” said Lagos Kunga, a 19-year-old “homegrown player” that has advanced through the Atlanta United Academy system and is now with United 2 in hopes of making an impression and moving up to MLS after training with the first team in the preseason.
A forward, who grew up in Atlanta after immigrating from Angola, Kunga is especially excited to show off back in front of a home crowd.
“I think I’m getting 10 tickets; if I could get more I’d get more,” Kunga chuckled. “Every chance I can get on the field it’s a step closer to impress the first team. I’ve loved Atlanta ever since I came to the U.S. I lived in Clarkston and fell in love with the state, so playing in front of everybody, I’m nervous but excited.
“If I score (Saturday) — I’m going to go home and look up some celebrations online; I’m going to pull something crazy if I score.”