Atlanta United storylines to watch this MLS season

Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) walks out onto the pitch for warmups before the match against Inter Miami Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

Credit: Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United

Combined ShapeCaption
Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) walks out onto the pitch for warmups before the match against Inter Miami Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

Credit: Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United

Atlanta United storylines to watch during the MLS season, which starts Sunday with the team hosting Sporting KC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium:

Will Josef Martinez be his old self? Based upon his performances with Venezuela in its World Cup qualifiers, and a few minutes with Atlanta United, he looks much more lively than he did last season when he appeared to have little confidence in his surgically repaired right knee. An attempted bicycle kick for Venezuela is the best example of his vigor and of the spring that may be back in his legs. The team needs Martinez, probably more than any other team needs any one player, other than the two LA’s with Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela. Martinez scores goals. Goals change games, as Brad Guzan said. Therefore, Martinez changes games. If he can get good crosses from fullbacks Andrew Gutman and Brooks Lennon or Ronald Hernandez, or line-splitting passes from whoever starts in the central midfield, there’s no reason he can’t again score at least 20 goals and be a contender for his second MLS MVP.

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Will new Designated Player Thiago Almada come good? The tools were on display during this 50-minute cameo against Chivas in Guadalajara, Mexico. He created a chance for Martinez and put two shots on goal. He also handled most of the free kicks. Much depends upon where manager Gonzalo Pineda plays him. If Pineda plays him as an attacking midfielder, Almada, like right wing Luiz Araujo, has the talent to score at least 10 goals with 10 assists. If he plays on the wing, expect half the goals but possibly the same number of assists. He can’t be Barco 2.0. That much is clear. Almada has to be consistent, which is a lot to ask of a 20-year-old. But he has to do more than win fouls. He must create chances. His production may take a few weeks. It may take a few months. This is a new experience for Almada, and there can be a long adjustment period, particularly for young players.

Who will start on the left wing, and what happens next? It seems probable that it will be either Almada or Marcelino Moreno once he returns from the foot injury he sustained during the first week of training camp that forced him to miss the subsequent weeks. Moreno is much more productive as an attacking midfielder. Almada prefers to play as an attacking midfielder. He’s younger, cost more and has more resale value. There likely won’t be two attacking midfielders. Moreno’s injury – and missing most of training camp –has opened the door for Tyler Wolff to take over at left wing, or for Almada to play there with someone else as the attacking midfielder in the opening weeks. If Almada starts on the left, which is where he played against Chivas, look for Amar Sejdic to start as the attacking midfielder, interchanging with central midfielder Matheus Rossetto. Jake Mulraney and Emerson Hyndman, more candidates to play attacking midfielder, have missed most of training camp.

Has the team learned how to hold onto results? Dropping points was a huge problem last season. The team dropped 13 points from winning positions after the 75th minute in 15 games last season, won only two points from 10 games in which it was trailing at the mark, and picked up 12 points in nine games in which it was tied at the mark. The good news is in the last game of the season, at Cincinnati, when it needed to pick up points, it came from 1-0 down to win 2-1 and secure a better seed in the playoffs. To address that weakness, the team signed Ozzie Alonso, a tough defensive midfielder who knows how to secure results. He has made the playoffs every season he’s played in MLS, first with Seattle and then with Minnesota. The team also is hoping that another year of experience for its numerous young players, combined with more effective offense, will help. The first team allowed three goals in its six exhibition games. Its only stinker was a 3-0 loss to Chivas in which individual errors were too much to overcome. In the other games, against overmatched opponents, the team built leads and then increased them.

Will the new formation work? Pineda has switched the team’s base formation from playing with three centerbacks, known as five at the back, to two centerbacks, known as four at the back. The idea is to keep pushing the fullbacks up the field and get another midfielder in the formation to unbalance opponents. There were times the past few seasons when Atlanta United’s offense would become static. It scored only 45 goals in 34 games last season. New England, which won the Supporters’ Shield, led the league with 65. Some of Atlanta United’s issues were a result of the formation and some were a result of the personnel and their skills and choices. The new formation, based upon preseason choices, looks more like a 4-3-3 with two centerbacks, two fullbacks, two defensive midfielders, a central midfielder, two wingers and a striker. It has produced well in some moments during the preseason, and it has looked awful in others. The defense has been fine. It’s the offense that has struggled. When runs are made behind an opponent’s back line and when the central midfielders push up and find pockets of space, the offense should look very good, with many chances created. When the fullbacks or wingers, along with the central midfielders are static, it’s going to be hard to watch.

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Atlanta United’s 2022 MLS schedule

Feb. 27 vs. Sporting KC, 3 p.m., FS1

March 5 at Colorado, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

March 13 vs. Charlotte, 4:30 p.m., FS1

March 19 vs. Montreal, 4 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

April 2 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

April 10 at Charlotte, 1:30 p.m., ABC, ESPN Deportes

April 16 vs. Cincinnati, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

April 24 at Miami, 1 p.m., ESPN

April 30 at Montreal, 4 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

May 7 vs. Chicago, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

May 15 vs. New England, 2 p.m., ESPN

May 21 at Nashville, 7:30 p.m. FOX

May 28 vs. Columbus Crew, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

June 19 vs Miami, 4 p.m., ESPN2

June 25 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

June 30 at New York Red Bulls, 8 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

July 3 at NYCFC, 5 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

July 9 vs. Austin, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

July 13 vs. Real Salt Lake, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

July 17 vs. Orlando, 3 p.m., ABC

July 24 at L.A. Galaxy, 9:30 p.m., FS1

July 30 at Chicago, 5 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

August 6 vs. Seattle, 3 p.m., ABC

August 13 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m. BSSO/BSSE

August 17 vs. New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

August 21 at Columbus, 6 p.m., FS1

August 28 vs. D.C. United, 4 p.m., UNIV

August 31 at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 4 at Portland, 5:30 p.m., FOX

Sept. 10 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept. 14 at Orlando, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept 17 vs. Philadelphia, 3:30 p.m., UniMas

Oct. 1 at New England, 1 p.m., UniMas

Oct. 9 vs. NYCFC, TBD, BSSO/BSSE