Josef Martinez and Jake Mulraney embrace after a goal during the preseason match against the Philadelphia Union during preseason at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, on Friday January 24, 2020. (Photo by Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)
Photo: Josef Martinez, Jake Mulraney/Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United
Photo: Josef Martinez, Jake Mulraney/Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United

Atlanta United’s new wingbacks off to solid starts

Tasked with taking over for Julian Gressel,who was traded last week to D.C. United, and Justin Meram, whose contract option was declined, Brooks Lennon and Jake Mulraney combined to total a possible assist (scoring is unofficial because it was a scrimmage), a forced own goal and several plays that put Philadelphia under pressure on a beautiful day on Florida’s west coast.

“I think they bring a lot of great things for our team on the attacking end, and of course they play defense,” central midfielder Emerson Hyndman. “We like the guys to fly forward when they can. They both have speed and both have vision on crossing. They can both beat a man. They are very dangerous.”

Mulraney, recently signed from Hearts in Scotland’s Premiership and seeing his first action with his new club, created the own goal with a dangerous cross into the box from the left. Philadelphia’s Aurelien Collin turned the ball into the net with a mis-hit clearance.

Mulraney came close to scoring in the 26th minute when, after being put into space by an Ezequiel Barco pass that was started by Lennon winning a duel, he blew past his defender and hit a right-footed shot toward the lower left corner. It was pushed out of bounds for a corner kick.

“If you have like 60-70 percent ball possession, a guy like Jake can make his one against one action,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said. “He’s so explosive you want to have him on the wing one on one.”

Mulraney said Tuesday that he is still learning the defensive aspects of being a wingback. He was steady Wednesday. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan and centerback Fernando Meza consistently provided instructions about his positioning and when to press.

Lennon’s work rate may have been the highest among Atlanta United’s players on a warm Wednesday. Even past the 60th minute he was sprinting at opponents, at one point taking on three Union players and forcing a pass back to the goalkeeper.

That came after Lennon made a run in the first half past Aurelien Collin to catch up to a long pass that resulted in a cross to Josef Martinez, whose shot went just wide.

“One of my best attributes is going out there and giving it all I have,” Lennon said. “We worked a lot this week on pressing and pressing together as a block. I recognized that was good time to go and forced the ball back to the keeper.”

Lennon’s defense hasn’t been the question. It’s the final product on offense that was arguably the biggest question mark about him for three seasons at Real Salt Lake, which traded him to Atlanta United in December 2019.

After Wednesday’s assist, Lennon has two in two games in the preseason. He had 10 in three seasons at Real Salt Lake. Gressel totaled 35 the past three seasons at Atlanta United, many coming from the right side of Atlanta United’s formation.

Lennon said he thinks that his stats are going to improve this season because he’s playing his natural position and the quality of the finishers on the team.

“Going forward they are definitely going to be a problem,” Hyndman said.

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