Defeating Chattanooga 4-0 in its first preseason game could be considered Atlanta United’s first quiz.
Its first test will come Saturday when the MLS expansion squad for the first time faces another MLS team, Columbus, in the Carolina Challenge Cup in Charleston, S.C. The game starts at 4:30 p.m. and will be live-streamed.
“The demand is higher in this game,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said. “I’m expecting more in this game.”
Here are four things to watch:
The starting lineup. Martino used a 4-2-3-1 formation last week featuring Decatur’s Alec Kann in goal, Tyrone Mears at right back, Greg Garza at left back, Leandro Pirez and Michael Parkhurst as the centerhalves, Chris McCann and Jeff Larentowicz as defensive midfielders, Miguel Almiron as an attacking midfielder, Hector Villalba and Yamil Asad as wide midfielders and Kenwyne Jones as the lone striker.
He said it is likely that this will again be the starting lineup, with Josef Martinez starting in place of Asad, who has a minor injury. If the lineup and personnel remain mostly the same, it is a good indication of what to expect when the team opens the regular season hosting New York Red Bulls at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium on March 5.
Martinez, who Martino said can play as a lone striker, second striker, left wing or midfielder, and Asad scored last week against Chattanooga. Carlos Carmona, a defensive midfielder, has missed some practice while home in Chile this week and therefore likely won’t start.
The tactics. Atlanta United’s players showed last week some of the pressing tactics that Martino wants to use. Three of the goals could be traced to Atlanta United winning the ball and quickly attacking.
“If you can stop them at the source of their attack, it’s only one or two passes and you can create a chance on goal,” McCann said.
This week expect to see those tactics fine-tuned a bit more after another week of the players learning the system and each other.
“If we play forward, it has to be right pass at right time, or get a breath and keep the ball moving so we have speed and power to attack at the right pace,” midfielder Kevin Kratz said.
McCann’s role in the offense will change slightly this week. While last week he and Larentowicz partnered on the offensive end, McCann may venture forward about 10 yards more to provide an outlet for passes from his teammates.
Trying to press Columbus should be a different experience than doing so against Chattanooga. Columbus features a quality midfield led by Ethan Finlay and Federico Higuain. They won’t panic on the ball and likely won’t make too many sloppy passes.
“It will be a true test of things we will do well and things we don’t do well,” Parkhurst said.
The defense. There were some shaky moments against Chattanooga last week, specifically on counterattacks. In Ola Kamara, Columbus has a quality forward who can take advantage of scoring opportunities. He led the Crew with 16 goals in 25 appearances last season.
Parkhurst said the communication between himself and Leandro Pirez, the other centerhalf, was good against Chattanooga, but can be better.
“Getting on the same page is something we are working on,” Parkhurst said.
Support. Tickets for Saturday’s games were almost sold out. More than 12,400 people showed up to watch the first game in Chattanooga, which is a two-hour drive from Atlanta. It will be interesting to see how many Atlanta United supports will make the six-hour drive to Charleston, especially for the final two games. The team has surpassed 40,000 tickets sold for its home opener, which includes more than 27,000 season tickets sold.
“It’s great that the reception has been what it has,” Martino said. “I hope the tam can meet the expectations of the city.”