Atlanta United training-camp battles to watch

Atlanta United's Ezequiel Barco (8) and Orlando City's Chris Mueller battle for the ball at Exploria Stadium in Orlando, Florida, on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)
Atlanta United's Ezequiel Barco (8) and Orlando City's Chris Mueller battle for the ball at Exploria Stadium in Orlando, Florida, on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Atlanta United started training camp Wednesday for its fifth season in MLS.

The team declined to say Wednesday if all players under contract participated at the training ground in Marietta.

For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to assume that all the players currently on the roster (and one more) were there and will be there.

Media aren’t allowed at the training center because of COVID-19 protocols (which is understandably fine), so we can’t watch the small portions of training, which typically is just the warm-up period, which is allowed by MLS.

Here are position battles I’m going to be curious to ask new manager Gabriel Heinze about:

Anton Walkes vs. Lautaro Giannetti. I’m assuming that Miles Robinson is going to start at one of the two centerbacks in a four-man backline. I’m also assuming that Giannetti is signing from Velez Sarsfield. Walkes, 24, started 15 games as part of 17 appearances last season. He and Robinson formed a decent partnership. While athletic and capable one-on-one defenders, the issue is that both are still developing their confidence in their on-the-ball skills. For example, Robinson completed 83.4 percent of his Long Passes last season, but he completed just 0.13 Key Passes during games, according to fbref.com. It’s obvious by the percentage of long passes that he can pick out a man. He just needs to do it more frequently. Walkes completed 76.4 percent of his Long Passes, with just 0.07 Key Passes during games. Giannetti is reportedly an excellent passer in the vein of former Atlanta United centerback Leandro Gonzalez Pirez.

Brooks Lennon vs. Ronald Hernandez. With the loan of Franco Escobar to Newell’s Old Boys, the team has just two players with experience to play right fullback or right wingback. Though some supporters dislike Lennon for whatever reason, the 23-year-old scored two goals and had three assists in 1,751 minutes last season. He was tireless. Imagine how many assists he would have had if Josef Martinez had been healthy. His Expected Goals, 0.06, put him in the 75th percentile in MLS. His Expected Assists, 0.17, put him in the 91st percentile in the league. Defensively, Lennon can improve his tackling (25 percent success rate) and pressures (24.8 percent success rate). Hernandez, 23, is a bit of a mystery. He was solid with Staebek in Norway, with seven assists in 61 appearances. He also had five yellow cards. He was purchased by Aberdeen, where he made only six appearances before returning home to Venezuela to be with his wife and child.

Mo Adams vs. Santiago Sosa vs. Franco Ibarra. This is going to be fun to ask about. I thought Adams really started to play well late into the season once he began to get consecutive starts. He was good in tight spaces with the ball (93rd percentile Successful Dribbles and 31 percent Dispossessed) and was an aggressive defender (91st percentile for Pressures), a decent tackler (62nd percentile) and a capable passer (92nd percentile). From videos, Ibarra appears to have the aggressiveness of youth with his tackles. Sosa appears to be a very good passer with an ability to tackle.

Emerson Hyndman vs. Matheus Rossetto. To be honest, I’m not certain either is going to start. I’m not certain Hyndman will still be on the roster by the start of the season. I suspect the team may waive his contract, similar to what it did with Chris McCann following the 2018 season. I think Hyndman has quality but needs better players around him to shine, as he did during 2019. Rossetto also has quality but really failed to positively impact the team in any way last season with Non-Penalty Expected Goals Plus Assists of just 0.06, putting him in the 19th percentile in MLS. Hyndman’s was 0.12; 43rd percentile. To be fair, I can’t imagine how difficult last season must have been for Rossetto. New country. New city. New team. New league. Speaking a second language. Getting semi-consistent minutes for first time in a year. I think, if given the chance, he will come good this season.

Ezequiel Barco vs. Erik Lopez. In my opinion, this is it for Barco He either produces and the team is able to sell him to a club to Europe, or he doesn’t and ... who knows. His Non-Penalty Expected Goals Plus Assists was 0.30 last season, putting him in the 25th percentile in MLS. The league average for the position was 0.40. That’s not the production of a Designated Player. If he doesn’t, Lopez is waiting in the wings to challenge for minutes.

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