Eight thoughts about Atlanta United’s friendly season

Atlanta United's Marcelino Moreno controls the ball during a 2-1 loss to Columbus on Sunday.
Atlanta United's Marcelino Moreno controls the ball during a 2-1 loss to Columbus on Sunday.

After watching Atlanta United play Charleston in a training exercise and Birmingham in two 70-minute scrimmages, here are my thoughts about the team as it prepares to play Alajuelense on April 6 in the Champions League:

1. Santiago Sosa has a bright future. Sosa, a 21-year-old midfielder, has an eye for the long pass to the wings. Atlanta United’s offense came to life in the second scrimmage against Birmingham (albeit against a mixed group of players) when Sosa came on and started to ping passes down the left. Once he gets used to his teammates, and they with him, he could be something special. Now, he’s also capable of the bad giveaway. We saw one against Charleston and another against Birmingham when he turned and hit a blind pass to what I guess he thought was a centerback. It was a Birmingham player. I’m going to take that as a sign of rust.

2. Marcelino Moreno has looked lively. Moreno’s aggressiveness against the Battery and the Legion gave me a few “whooas.” His run past several Birmingham defenders resulted in the corner kick and goal by Anton Walkes on Sunday. If you squint, he even kind of runs like Miguel Almiron. Perhaps moving to the wing after the playing centrally last year has given him a bit of freedom.

3. The two Barcos. I, as well as anyone watching the game, thought Barco looked fantastic against Charleston. His free kick goal was a thing of beauty. He fought through tackles. He stayed on his feet. He worked on defense. Against Birmingham, there was a bit of the Barco that holds onto the ball looking for fouls. He still played well on defense and seems poised for a big year, particularly if surrounded by Moreno, Jurgen Damm, etc.

4. Speaking of Damm.... I still think he’s going to be a productive player for the team but he’s got to be more aware of when to pass and when to dribble. When Damm gets the ball, he’s going to dribble. Every time. He’s not going to go do a give-and-go or one-time a cross. The same is true of Jake Mulraney. The difference between the two is Mulraney’s crosses are typically into dangerous spots for defenses.

5. Josef Martinez is close to being his old self. It’s clear that he is still learning to trust his surgically repaired knee. There was a moment against Birmingham when he jumped to challenge for a header and you could see him kind of half-dragging his right leg behind him as he attempted to head the ball. To me, that was a sign that either he didn’t jump as effortlessly as he once did, or realized halfway up that he was jumping on his repaired knee and stopped, or he was jumping purely off his left leg. Either way, he didn’t look as springy as he did pre-surgery. The good news is that he got up into the air and forced a save. That’s a very good sign. Do I think he will start at Alajuelense? I think that may depend upon the quality of the field. If you remember, when Atlanta United played at Herediano its field was like green concrete. That’s not good for the knees.

6. Miles Robinson looks like the 2019 player. Robinson played through injuries last season. While still good, he didn’t look as dominant as he did in 2019. During this preseason, Robinson has looked very good. His one-on-one defending remains superb and his passing, which is underrated, was also on point.

7. Fullback battles. George Bello seems like a lock to start at left back. I thought Ronald Hernandez played well against Charleston but struggled at Birmingham. Brooks Lennon looked good against both teams with a goal against Charleston and solid positional play against Birmingham, which again was composed of several trialists and academy players. I would bet that Bello and Lennon start in Costa Rica.

8. The Homegrowns. Because Jackson Conway didn’t play against either Birmingham or Charleston, I assume he’s going to spend a lot of time with Atlanta United 2 this year. Machop Chol looked very good but is facing having to either beat Marcelino Moreno or Ezequiel Barco (if he’s played out wide) for time. I think it likely he will play mostly for Atlanta United 2. Tyler Wolff got a lot of playing time and is still learning. Lots of potential but also likely headed to Atlanta United 2. George Campbell is a bit of a wildcard. I thought he and Robinson formed a good partnership in the middle of the defense. Campbell is still very inexperienced having lost an opportunity last season to gain valuable playing time. He will hold onto to the ball too long sometimes. Other times he will sometimes force a pass. But that’s expected. Defensively, he was very good. I think he needs playing time so he will likely also go to Atlanta United 2 but it wouldn’t surprise me if he stays with the senior team. Also, must of this going to the Atlanta United 2s will depend upon COVID protocols.

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