Atlanta United midfielder Hector Villaiba reacts to scoring a goal for a 3-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls with Michael Amir Murillo looking on during the second half in their Eastern Conference finals MLS soccer game on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Atlanta United heads to California ready to see progress

After two weeks under new manager Frank de Boer at the team’s facility in Marietta, Atlanta United will spend the next two weeks in California wrapping up its preseason training.

The team flew to Los Angeles on Friday and is scheduled to return Feb. 15. It will then turn attention to game week with its CONCACAF Champions League debut at Herediano in Costa Rica on Feb. 21.

The team will play four exhibition games in California to prepare for its first Champions League game. The first friendly will be against Seattle on Saturday, followed by games against Tijuana of Mexico’s first division on Wednesday, LAFC on Feb. 10 and the L.A. Galaxy on Feb. 13.

“Really want to see how far we are in the preseason,” de Boer said. “Really looking forward to seeing how we play against those kind of teams.”

De Boer said the intensity and discipline of the players has been impressive as they work to try to do well in the Champions League as well as defend their MLS Cup.

“The quality is quite high,” he said. “It’s not surprising, but it’s fun to watch. They make my life difficult. That’s good as a coach. Everybody gives their all.”

During de Boer’s first press conference, he said that he wasn’t going to make wholesale changes to what previous manager Gerardo Martino installed because it worked. The team scored 70 goals in back-to-back seasons and finished with two of the biggest goal differences in league history.

The team spent most of the first two weeks focused on defense because de Boer said a solid defense is the start to a good offense. 

“We put in a lot of energy in the first two weeks,” he said.

The players on that defense have mostly returned. The notable losses were Greg Garza as a left fullback or wingback. Competition to replace him will come from free-agent acquisition Brek Shea, Chris McCann, Mikey Ambrose, Jose Hernandez and 17-year-old Homegrown Signing George Bello. The center of the defense, led by goalkeeper Brad Guzan and centerbacks Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Michael Parkhurst also returned, though Boca Juniors have shown interest in trying to acquire Gonzalez Pirez.

The team switched on Monday to start working on some aspects of its offense. That group, led by league MVP Josef Martinez, must deal with the loss of Miguel Almiron, who was sold by the club to Newcastle for an MLS record transfer fee of $27 million on Thursday. De Boer has the player he thinks can replace Almiron, who finished second in the league MVP voting last season, in Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez. The club also returns notable starters Ezequiel Barco, Darlington Nagbe, Julian Gressel and Hector Villalba.

“They are quick learners,” de Boer said. “The discipline, it makes for a coach life easier.”

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