Atlanta United starts MLS season Saturday

October 7, 2020 Atlanta - Atlanta United midfielder JŸrgen Damm (22) is fouled by Orlando City defender Rodrigo Schlegel (15) during the second half in a MLS soccer match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Wednesday, October 7, 2020. The game ended with the score 0-0. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
October 7, 2020 Atlanta - Atlanta United midfielder JŸrgen Damm (22) is fouled by Orlando City defender Rodrigo Schlegel (15) during the second half in a MLS soccer match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Wednesday, October 7, 2020. The game ended with the score 0-0. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

A team can’t officially get rid of its previous season until it begins its next season.

With that, Atlanta United can officially push its forgettable 2020 as far as possible into history when it starts its 2021 season Saturday at Orlando.

“This is a game and moment we’ve been waiting for for six months,” Atlanta United centerback Miles Robinson said.

To quickly recap, hopefully for the final time: The team lost standout striker Josef Martinez in the first half of the first game to start the 2020 season. Then, COVID-19. Then an 0-fer (wins and goals) at the MLS is Back tournament. Then the manager and team parted ways. Then one of its Designated Players was surprisingly sold. Still, it had a chance to make the playoffs. It didn’t. For the first time. House was cleaned. A new manager, Gabriel Heinze, was hired. Some players were released. Some were traded. Some were loaned. New players were added.

On Saturday, President Darren Eales and Vice President Carlos Bocanegra will start to learn if their work is going to pay off.

The starting lineup likely will feature only two new of the signings: Santiago Sosa and Franco Ibarra. So why should expectations change if the remaining players are the same as were on last year’s team that went 6-4-13 with a goal differential of minus-7?

For starters, Martinez is back. He didn’t look like his old self in the first half of Tuesday’s win in the Champions League, but did start to resemble the aggressive, lethal striker in the second half.

Second, Heinze. His tactics are much more aggressive than predecessor Frank de Boer’s. His communication skills are better. His instructions more clear.

As such, the players say they are confident.

“The chemistry is there with him and the team,” fullback George Bello said. “The passion he has for the game comes to us.”

For Atlanta United to perform well, focus on Bello because Orlando likely will attack his side with either Nani or Chris Mueller.

Alajuelense tried repeatedly to exploit the left side of Atlanta United’s formation in their recently completed Champions League series. Atlanta United posted 1-0 shutouts in both games.

“I take it as a challenge,” Bello, 19, said. “I love challenges. I know I’m still young. Teams may play to my side. I look it as soccer. I will keep getting experience and knowing what to do.”

Unlike Alajuelense, Orlando isn’t going to sit back and allow Atlanta United to have the ball. Heinze said the Lions are a team “that works very well together. They are very aggressive players. They have a different style of players and high quality.”

The positive side of that aggressiveness for Atlanta United supporters is that when Atlanta United has the ball, there may be spaces to exploit.

Bello, again, may be key. Heinze likes his fullback to push high up the field. If the ball is on an opposite side, the fullbacks can drift inside and play as an attacking midfielder.

“He likes to have a fluid team,” Bello said. “He wants us to cover teammates back. It makes us more versatile. It’s really good for the team once we keep improving and building chemistry together. I really like it.”

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