Atlanta United fine-tuning before season opener

Atlanta United has a few days of practice remaining to polish its offense and defense before it opens the season Saturday.

A few players said the team isn’t yet at its best after five weeks of practice and four preseason games. And that’s OK.

“We weren’t the final product on Week 1 last year,” Atlanta United’s Jeff Larentowicz said. “You saw how it came together.”

The Five Stripes became the first MLS expansion team since Seattle in 2009 to make the playoffs. Its exciting, fast pace of play and 70 goals scored made it the darlings of the league.

Atlanta United opens the regular season at the Houston Dynamo on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.

The team lost two key pieces in defensive midfielder Carlos Carmona and left midfielder Yamil Asad. It added a few more in Ezequiel Barco, Darlington Nagbe, Franco Escobar and Sal Zizzo that it is integrating into the lineup in an attempt to better last season’s 15-9-10 record and fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference.

It was difficult to tell in the four preseason games if the team will be better starting this regular season than it was starting its inaugural season last year.

The team defeated Nashville SC, a first-year team in the second division USL, 3-1 in a monsoon in the first game, but didn’t look great.

Fielding mostly the same starting 11, it was outplayed and beaten by Columbus 3-1 in its second game in Charleston, S.C.

Fielding again mostly the same core, the Five Stripes came alive against Minnesota but walked away with a 1-1 draw, mostly because Matt Lampson put in a Zack Steffen-like performance in goal. 

Fielding mostly reserves, it drew with Charleston 0-0 in its final game, which opened the door for this game week and the things it is working to improve.

At times during the preseason games, the offense looked as sharp as it did last season. But really, with the exception of the second half against Minnesota when it the offense looked spectacular, it dominated possession but didn’t create many chances.

Larentowicz didn’t seem worried because he said the improved execution in the final-third of the field typically is the last thing worked on during preseason. Larentowicz said he thought the offense looked good during Tuesday’s scrimmage.

“You want to work back to front, make sure the back is set up first and then work your way up the field,” he said. “Preseason is six weeks. We are in the sixth week and are pulling it together.”

The defense made key mistakes in crucial minutes against Columbus. But that was also an issue last season. In the remaining games the group led by goalkeeper Brad Guzan and centerback Leandro Gonzalez Pirez appeared mostly solid.

Captain Michael Parkhurst said the team is still working on integrating the new players in the lineup. He thought they were also sloppy with the ball at times. Guzan said the team’s decision-making can also improve, but that’s why there is a preseason.

“Time’s running out and obviously we want to get a result on Saturday, even if we aren’t at our best,” Parkhurst said. “Hopefully, that comes midseason, end of season, we will be at our finest.”