Review/preview: Atlanta United’s 5 things to watch

Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) and Montreal's Kamal Miller (3) fight for possession of the ball in the second half Saturday, May 15, 2021 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)
Caption
Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) and Montreal's Kamal Miller (3) fight for possession of the ball in the second half Saturday, May 15, 2021 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Atlanta United has played seven of its 34 MLS games.

It is 2-1-4 with nine goals scored and seven allowed.

While the team is on hiatus during the FIFA international break, it seems like a good time to go back and look at the 5 things to watch I wrote as part of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s season preview package and review how they are developing.

1. Josef Martinez

A portion of what I wrote then: “Now, with Josef Martinez healthy, how will he affect the team under the aggressive (Gabriel) Heinze, who is much more similar to previous manager Gerardo Martino in his desire to dictate games rather than he is to de Boer, who seemed to want to read and react more. If Martinez plays 2,000 minutes, the Five Stripes will be tough to beat this season.”

How it’s going: Well.

After a slow start, Martinez is beginning to resemble the form that made him arguably the best striker in MLS history from 2017-19 before a knee injury in the first game of the 2020 season and subsequent surgery ended that campaign.

He has two goals in seven appearances, which includes four starts. He has played 397 of a possible 630 minutes. Of note he has played at least 73 minutes in the past four games.

His runs are becoming more decisive. He is throwing himself into winning headers. He seems to be gaining confidence in his right knee.

2. Ezequiel Barco

A portion of what I wrote then: “Now, he just has to stay healthy. That’s it. He’s yet to make more than 20 starts in a season. If he can make at least 20 starts, he should have a good year, and Atlanta United should receive some decent offers. Things are working out well so far. He has one goal and one assist and has looked dangerous, particularly when in the middle of the formation.”

How it’s going: Unfortunately, as expected.

Barco has started two games, as part of four appearances. He has missed three games because of a muscle injury. He has played 255 minutes.

Heinze is playing him as an attacking midfielder.

Chicago goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth (1) is not able to stop the goal by Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco (8) during the first half Saturday, April 24, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Chicago goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth (1) is not able to stop the goal by Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco (8) during the first half Saturday, April 24, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Barco has one goal in and zero assists four appearances. In a motif that has continued since he joined the team in 2018, Barco dribbles a lot and doesn’t seem to be on the same page as his teammates often enough. But there’s still a lot of time for that to improve. He is third on the team with seven key passes. Marcelino Moreno, who moved from the wing into the Barco’s spot following his injury, is second on the team with nine key passes.

Barco is now healthy. He came off the bench in the second half against Nashville. He played in a recent game with Argentina’s U23 team and scored a goal on a penalty kick.

It will be interesting to see where Heinze plays Barco, or if he starts him, in the next game against Philadelphia on June 20.

3. Development of Miles Robinson, George Bello and Santiago Sosa.

A portion of what I wrote then: “A year under Heinze could be enormous for Bello in his reading of situations. It also could benefit Robinson on how to take advantage of set pieces. Sosa may have more potential than either of them. He just needs consistent playing time ...”

How it’s going: Very well.

Robinson’s progress with the ball has been fun to watch. At least once a game, Robinson will split three lines with a pass to a teammate. His pass against Nashville led to a Moreno goal in the sixth minute. He remains one of the best, if not the best, one-on-one defender in the league.

Bello has had some shaky moments on defense early in the season, but is starting to find his rhythm. He hasn’t been helped by having had several partners on the left side to try to get used to. Still, Bello has one assist in 606 minutes, a tackle rate of 40 percent and a successful pressure rate of 31.

Sosa arguably has been one of the better newcomers in the league this season. He has played every minute of every game and been a key member of the team’s defense (three tackles per 90) and a passing metronome (91.6 percent) similar to Darlington Nagbe on offense.

Atlanta United head coach Gabriel Heinze yells instructions during a 3-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union in the Champions League quarterfinals match Tuesday, April 27, 2021, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Atlanta United head coach Gabriel Heinze yells instructions during a 3-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union in the Champions League quarterfinals match Tuesday, April 27, 2021, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

4. How Heinze uses the depth.

A portion of what I wrote then: “Heinze can’t favor starting the same 11 again and again. The good news is this team potentially ranks among the deepest in the East. If Josef Martinez can’t start, bring on Lisandro Lopez with his 190 goals scored during his career, or Erick Torres. If Barco needs a rest, there’s Moreno or Jake Mulraney or Erik Lopez, depending upon the position. If Lennon needs a rest, bring on Ronald Hernandez. It goes on and on.”

How it’s going: Good, to a degree.

Lisandro Lopez understandably left the team following the death of his father in Argentina. The two sides agreed to terminate his contract.

Heinze has used the roster well. Twenty-one players have at least one appearance. Fifteen players have at least three appearances.

Heinze is starting to figure out the best ways to use Mulraney off the bench and as a spot starter, Anton Walkes has become a reliable starter beside Robinson while Alan Franco gains a level of comfort, Franco Ibarra and Erik Lopez are starting to produce during their minutes. Brooks Lennon continues to be among the most dependable players on the team. Now, Heinze needs to figure out how to use Matheus Rossetto and Ronald Hernandez.

The team will play six games in the next month. That depth will be crucial, especially considering Thursday’s news that Emerson Hyndman suffered a torn ACL and will miss months, and that Martinez will be with Venezuela in the Copa America and will miss the next few games.

5. The Homegrowns.

A portion of what I wrote then: “It seems likely that these players are going to train most of the time with Atlanta United, but earn most of their playing minutes this season with Atlanta United 2. That’s OK. They need playing minutes to improve so that when Heinze does need them to make a spot start or come off the bench they will be ready.”

How it’s going: As expected.

Of the non-Bello players, Jackson Conway, Tyler Wolff and George Campbell have yet to make an appearance. Machop Chol made one. He has been sidelined most of the season with an injury.

It doesn’t seem likely that these players will see much time with the first team this season.

About the Author

ajc.com