Final thoughts on Atlanta United’s preseason

01/13/2019 -- Marietta, Georgia -- Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) speaks with members of the media following a training with the team at the Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground, Monday, January 13, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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01/13/2019 -- Marietta, Georgia -- Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) speaks with members of the media following a training with the team at the Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground, Monday, January 13, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Atlanta United wrapped up its preseason friendlies with a 3-1 loss in penalty kicks to Leones Negros on Tuesday in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The loss was the first in five preseason games, which included a 2-1 win against New York Red Bulls, a 4-0 win against Philadelphia, a 1-1 draw with Swedish side Elfsborg and a 3-2 win against Birmingham.

The team will open its season Feb. 18 against Motagua in Honduras in the first of its two-legged Champions League series. First kick is scheduled for 10 p.m. Here are a few thoughts about the team’s preseason performances:

Why can't the team keep a left back? If you've followed Atlanta United for the past few years, you know that the team can't keep its left backs healthy. George Bello is out with a head injury with no timetable on a return. Edgar Castillo is week-to-week with a rib injury.

They shall be added to a lengthy list of players the team has used who have missed games because of injuries, starting with Greg Garza and continuing with Chris McCann, Mikey Ambrose, Brek Shea, Bello and Jose Hernandez. There’s not a consistency to the reasons. It’s just bad luck.

The team has deployed Anton Walkes in the past two games at left wingback. Walkes, who is right-footed, can play the position, but it's one that he is still learning. He put in three good crosses in the past two games. Jake Mulraney has also played left wingback the past two games. His speed is a threat going forward. His defense, he admits, is on-the-job learning. Manager Frank de Boer would like a lineup that features versatile players so that he can switch formations without having to make substitutions.

More injury issues. So, while the team may again be thin at wingback, its depth at centerback also took a hit last night when Miles Robinson walked off the field after 20 minutes with a left leg injury. Robinson was reaching to block a cross when he grimaced and then sat down on the turf.

Robinson wasn’t voted as MLS Defender of the Year last season but was arguably the league’s best one-on-one defender.

His skill allowed the team pour players forward into the attack last season but he was capable to single-handedly stopping most counter-attacks.

If Robinson misses any games, de Boer can select from Fernando Meza, Franco Escobar, Walkes and rookie George Campbell. Campbell, who came on for Robinson, played well in the past two games, especially considering his lack of experience.

He’s big, physical and good with the ball at his feet. He doesn’t appear to have a burst over the first 10 yards but makes up ground in pursuit. It will be interesting to see if de Boer will trust Campbell to start in Honduras.

Service to Josef Martinez. Atlanta United looked fantastic in scoring four goals in the first half against Philadelphia. Part of the reason the offense played so well is because the Union's players had just started its camp and quite a few were visibly out of shape.

As soon as Atlanta United started playing teams whose players were more fit the offense began to sputter. It started against Elfsborg, which aggressively pressed Atlanta United has high as into its own penalty box. That tactic made it hard to get the ball to Josef Martinez.

The issues continued against Birmingham. Though Atlanta United put at least five shots on goal in the first half, Martinez had difficulty finding space to receive the ball.

It got worse against Leones Negros. When Martinez touched the ball, it was usually because he was running back to receive it. He would make a touch to a teammate (usually), before spinning away and trying to find space down the field. The return ball rarely came.

Partially because Martinez couldn’t get the ball, Atlanta United put just one shot on goal in the game and it was from 30 yards.

The struggles are reminiscent of what happened toward the end of last year’s preseason and the beginning of the 2019 MLS campaign.

In parts of the past three friendlies, when Atlanta United had the ball, no one would make runs to make defenders make choices. It’s easy for defenders to do their job if their marks are static. Atlanta United’s offense would show sparks when the wingbacks would make runs behind the line, or when one of the centerbacks would venture forward, or when Emerson Hyndman would move forward. Doing so makes defenders have to make choices and can open spaces in the formation.

Where will Matheus Rossetto and rumored signing Manuel Castro play? Atlanta United has mostly played out of a 3-5-2/3-4-2-1 formation during the preseason. Rossetto is a central midfielder. He's not going to replace Pity Martinez in the formation. Will de Boer use him as "6," which is the position that Hyndman is playing? The team bought Hyndman from Bournemouth. It would seem odd to do so only to not use him. Will de Boer use him as a defensive midfielder in place or Eric Remedi or Jeff Larentowicz? De Boer said Rossetto can play the position, but the team needs more help in attack, not on defense. If the team plays out of a 4-3-3, Rossetto can play as a right or attacking midfielder. He looked great against Birmingham, but keep in mind at that point Birmingham had made massive subs to its lineup. So, everything needs context. Atlanta United looked like world-beaters against Philadelphia. Context.

Castro’s signing hasn’t been announced, but it seems probable based upon the reports and his background that he is coming. He’s also a right or central midfielder.

Two topics that need to be re-considered. There have been quite a few complaints on social media about the play of Brooks Lennon and Hyndman.

Lennon was acquired in trade with Real Salt Lake in December to compete at right fullback, wingback and midfield. At the time, Julian Gressel was still an Atlanta United player. Gressel was soon traded and Lennon became the de-facto starter in his old position. With that comes expectations because Gressel was very good at connecting with Josef Martinez the past three seasons.

Lennon collected two assists – three if you want to be generous – in five games. That’s not too bad. He put in at least five crosses against Leones Negros last night. Some complained that none were on the mark to Josef Martinez, saying Gressel would have done so. While a compliment to Gressel, it’s a bit of a reach. As previously noted, there wasn’t an Atlanta United player who could get the ball to Martinez last night. Give Lennon time.

Hyndman is taking over for Darlington Nagbe, arguably the best central midfielder in U.S., particularly at breaking pressure. Some seem to remember Nagbe as a two-way dynamo. He wasn’t that. He was very good at helping turn defense into offense because he would smartly get the ball, get past one line and then get the ball to the right player. Give Hyndman time.

If Atlanta United were to play tomorrow. Presuming that neither Robinson, Castillo nor Bello can play, how will Atlanta United line up in next week's opener?

Getting a draw on the road is a positive result, especially in a two-legged game. I think de Boer will keep playing three at the back to keep the defense as strong as possible.

Goalkeeper: Brad Guzan

Centerbacks: Escobar, Meza and Campbell.

Wingbacks: Lennon and Walkes.

Defensive Midfielders: Larentowicz and Hyndman.

Attackers: Pity Martinez, Barco and Josef Martinez.