Atlanta United looks sharp in training exercise

Josef Martinez plays 30, and Ezequiel Barco scores twice

Atlanta United showed encouraging signs that it is learning manager Gabriel Heinze’s tactics in Saturday’s training exercise against Charleston at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Playing four 30-minute periods in what was described as two games, Atlanta United scored three goals in the first game and three in the second. Charleston, which started its training camp Thursday, scored on goal on a penalty kick.

Heinze declined to speak with media members after the exercise.

Atlanta United’s goals were scored in a variety of ways: Ezequiel Barco by penalty kick, Erik Lopez from 18 yards after a nice pass by Lisandro Lopez, Barco from a 20-yard free kick, Machop Chol with his right foot after a long run through Charleston’s defense, Erick Torres with a header after a great cross from 16-year-old academy player Brendan Lambe and Brooks Lennon with a shot underneath Charleston’s goalkeeper after catching up to a beautiful long pass from academy player Abdoulaye Diop. Charleston’s goal came on a penalty kick in the first period.

“Overall it was a great exercise in terms of playing another game and going against someone other than academy kids,” goalkeeper and presumed captain Brad Guzan said. “Our movements and understanding of what the manager and coaching staff are asking was good at times. It’s always difficult when a team sits back and allows you the ball. The goals, I’ve said that’s what we want to get back to doing.”

The session was moved from the team’s training center in Marietta to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That decision was made Saturday morning.

Among the positive signs were Josef Martinez playing 30 minutes during the third session. He had one moment near the end of the period in which he looked like the player who dominated defenses from 2017-19. He one-timed a shot from 18 yards that required a fantastic save by Charleston’s goalkeeper.

Barco, who has had an inconsistent three seasons, looked very good on offense with his two goals. His free kick was expertly placed into the left side. On defense, he forced at least two turnovers with good tackles and consistently applied pressure when Charleston had the ball near him.

Marcelino Moreno also looked strong with at least two long runs.

A pair of Homegrowns, centerback George Campbell and Chol, looked very solid. Campbell was paired with Miles Robinson and the two snuffed out any attacks or counters the Battery attempted. Both also successfully connected on long passes that split Charleston’s lines. Chol scored his goal after shrugging off one attempted tackle and then dribbling across several Battery players until he could find room to shoot.

“I told him afterward that I thought he was great today,” Guzan said. “Smart on the ball. Took his chance really well. A threat every time he got the ball in terms of his link up play. Defensively he’s got speed to burn.”

Santiago Sosa, signed during the offseason and the presumed starter at defensive midfielder, was a tidy orchestrator of the offense. Often dropping between Robinson and Campbell, he connected on several long passes to the wings. He also broke up a few Charleston attacks. He did have at least one turnover. Franco Ibarra, another central midfielder, grew into the exercise with several strong tackles and passes.

Guzan said the team needs to work on defending set pieces. Charleston’s goal was the result of a corner kick that wasn’t cleared properly.

A glimpse into Heinze’s tactics showed the fullback playing very high up the field and sometimes making diagonal attacking runs into the penalty box. Lennon’s goal came as a result of one of those runs.

First Sosa and then Diop were the point players with the ball, spreading long passes around the field.

Atlanta United pressed Charleston when it had the ball, several times creating scoring chances. Erik Lopez’s goal came after Lisandro Lopez created a turnover 40 yards from goal.

With the exception of a few players, including Jackson Conway and Matheus Rossetto, everyone on the roster appeared.

Atlanta United will host Chattanooga on Wednesday and then finish its preseason friendlies with a scheduled game at Birmingham on March 28.