Atlanta United: Predicting the starting 11 vs. Houston

Who will Atlanta United start in Saturday’s season-opening game at Houston?

We know who won’t start: Ezequiel Barco, the $15 million midfielder who suffered a strained quad on Tuesday and is expected to miss 4-6 weeks.

I received a bit of stick on twitter earlier this week for floating an idea for a formation that the team could use. I’ll share that formation, with more of the reasoning behind it, in a few grafs below.

But let’s begin at the beginning.

Had everyone been healthy in the preseason, this is the lineup that I think the team would have used on Saturday:

It includes captain Michael Parkhurst at centerback, Franco Escobar as the right fullback, Hector Villalba as the right midfielder, Barco as the left midfielder and Jeff Larentowicz paired with Darlington Nagbe as the defensive midifielder.

However, Villalba and Escobar didn’t get to train with the team for most of the five weeks of preseason because of injuries. Both started the final preseason game. Escobar and Parkhurst looked as if they could start on Saturday. Villalba didn’t.

The trio also didn’t participate with what I presumed to be the starting 11 for Saturday’s match, which was:

But now that lineup must change because of Barco’s injury.

The easiest solution would be to insert either Andrew Carleton or Brandon Vazquez in on the left, which would look like this:

Here’s my issue with starting Carleton. He played less than 10 minutes in MLS last season. He has looked good in the preseason, but he’s just 17 years old. I think it’s a lot to ask of him to start in a season-opening game, on the road, against a team that may be as fast across the midfield as the Five Stripes. I think it may be more prudent for his long-term development to bring him off the bench for a few games, see how he does, particularly on defense, and then start him.

Another easy change would be this:

I floated this lineup on twitter and it wasn’t well-received, to put I mildly. I don’t know if it’s because I left out Carleton, or put in Chris McCann and Sal Zizzo, two players who started the first three preseason games.

Here’s my thinking behind this lineup:

I would be stunned if Martino turned away from using the lineup that has worked together most of the preseason, and in the first three games, for Week 1. It seems like that would almost be a bit of wasted work.

Some of you thought McCann and Zizzo didn’t play well in those preseason games. Well, this was Zizzo’s first action with the team since joining from New York Red Bulls. Playing fullback for Martino isn’t easy. I thought he grew into the formation and tactics as the games were played.

McCann had two bad moments, both within seconds, against Minnesota United. Other than that, I thought he did the job well.

You must also remember that while this formation is the same as last year’s, Darlington Nagbe has a different role than Carlos Carmona. Nagbe gets much higher up the field and stays there. To me, he’s a DM in name only. He does retreat and plays alongside other DM when Atlanta United is pressed into its half, but he doesn’t do what Carmona did.

Some of you pointed out that I was moving too many people around. I’m really not.

Almiron played on the left several times last season and during this recently completed preseason. As I also said, Nagbe is a more forward-thinking midfielder.

Some of you pointed out that the McCann/Larentowicz partnership doesn’t have a lot of speed. That’s true, but I also don’t see those guys moving too far up the field. The fullbacks will get up the field, leaving McCann and Larentowicz to fill in the spaces in the backline, which was exactly what Larentowicz and Carmona did last year.

So, here’s that formation. I think it brings a lot of firepower to bear and probably is more offensive-minded than what Martino will go with on the road.

It’s just an idea, not an expectation.

So, who will start?

If Escobar, Villalba and Parkhurst are ready, here’s what I think the lineup will look like:

If they aren’t ready, I think you will see the lineup that no one else seems to like.