Atlanta United gets stronger up middle in MLS draft

Doing their final mock drafts Thursday night, Atlanta United’s decision-makers slotted in Syracuse defender Miles Robinson with their second pick and Providence midfielder Julian Gressel with their eight pick in Friday’s MLS SuperDraft.

By Friday afternoon that mock looked prescient as the expansion side landed both players with its two selections in the first two rounds. Eales said they received many, many offers for trades from other teams trying to move up to No. 2.

“There were a lot of good picks,” Atlanta United President Darren Eales said. “There will be a lot of teams that will be very happy. But for our particular needs and where we were, we couldn’t be happier standing here today with the players we ended up with.”

Technical director Carlos Bocanegra said he knew that Robinson, a central defender from Syracuse, was the player he wanted after he started seriously scouting him during the summer. A former central defender for the U.S. men’s national team, Bocanegra said he was impressed by Robinson’s play with the U.S. youth national teams. He liked his personality, footwork, athletic ability, passing, ability to anticipate, frame (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) and that he usually wins one-on-one battles.

Those skills are important for any coach, but may be especially important for manager Gerardo Martino, who likes to play a high defensive line with players who are comfortable with the ball.

The only issue was that Robinson put on a show at the MLS combine in the drills and scrimmages and started to steadily move up the mock drafts, making it to No. 1 in a few. Robinson said he didn’t care if he went first or 40th.

“I want to show what I have to offer and prove I can play at the next level,” he said.

Bocanegra even joked he asked Robinson what he was doing after the player made a tremendous header that led to a goal and displayed his athletic ability and anticipation skills in the second half of a scrimmage Thursday.

“He has attributes that he can play at this level, he can play at the next level, and we will see what his ceiling is,” Bocanegra said. “We didn’t need the testing to see what we liked physically or athletically.”

Gressel was a player who Atlanta United liked heading into the combine, but his performances in the drills and scrimmages Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday solidified the interest of Bocanegra and Martino. Gressel, a midfielder from Providence and a native of Germany, will take up one of Atlanta United’s nine international slots.

Gressel’s versatility will enable Martino to slot him in any midfielder role, as a crunching tackler in a defensive role, to a wide spot, to an attacking midfielder. He started as a wide player at Providence, moved into the middle, and then filled in at forward after an injury knocked out the presumed starter. Gressel finished his collegiate career with 30 goals and 26 assists in 83 games.

“I think I can play different styles,” Gressel said. “Right now, I’m just happy to be here. I’m excited to get to know the city, get to know the fans and get to know the people that live there.”

Gressel will join Kevin Kratz as two Germans on Atlanta United’s roster. Gressel said he has followed the team for the past two months and liked the roster that is being built. The team has announced the signing of 23 players and is expected to announce more next week.

Bocanegra said he thinks that Robinson and Gressel should be able to compete for a starting spot under Martino. The team will open training camp Jan. 23 in Bradenton, Fla. Its first preseason game will come against Chattanooga in Finley Stadium on Feb. 11. Its first MLS regular-season game will be March 5 against New York Red Bulls at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium.

“We think (they) are ready to challenge for minutes now,” Bocanegra said.