Atlanta United will host Montreal on Saturday in an MLS game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Five Stripes are aiming to improve their home record to 3-0 and pick up their ninth point this season against a team that has quality but is winless in the league, partially because it has been affected by playing mid-week games in the Champions League. It was eliminated from the tournament by Mexican power Cruz Azul on Wednesday.
“I‘m waiting for the best Montreal, they will try to come back strong and prove in the league that they’re doing well,” Atlanta United manager Gonzalo Pineda said. “They’re a very good team. Last year, they beat us in in their house. So I remember that one. So, yeah, we expected the best Montreal possible.”
Here are a few things to watch in the game:
Can Josef Martinez go 2-for-2? Martinez scored his first goal of the season in last week’s 2-1 win against Charlotte. Though he scored only one, Martinez looked as lively and as dangerous as he did from 2017-19, when he became arguably the best striker in MLS history. He put four shots on goal and should have had a hat trick if not for fantastic saves by Charlotte’s goalkeeper.
Martinez has said that once the first goal is scored, it becomes easier to score more. He said that he understands that his teammates are doing their best to provide him service so that he can create more scoring attempts.
“It is what it is,” he said. “All the guys are doing the best that they can. Everyone is trying to try and giving their best. We just have to keep fighting, and hopefully we’ll be able to know more more like we want to play.”
Will Atlanta United field a stronger 11? It doesn’t look likely, based upon what Pineda said Thursday. Though he said after the game against Charlotte that it’s likely that Marcelino Moreno could have started, he said two days ago that he’s not yet sure if Moreno can go 90 minutes. Moreno provides an attacking threat that other midfielders on the team don’t show consistently enough. It was Moreno’s cross-field pass that found Jake Mulraney for the game-winner against Charlotte.
“Just trying to calculate how many minutes he can play at a high level,” Pineda said of Moreno.
Pineda reiterated that Thiago Almada is being integrated into the team at a pace of his choosing because he doesn’t want to put too much pressure on the $16 million Designated Player. Almada made his debut off the bench last week. Almada seems to be fine with coming off the bench. He said that he trusts Pineda’s process and understands that he is coming to a new team and league. He said he went through the same assimilation at his previous club, Velez Sarsfield.
“I think people will understand that is the right call,” Pineda said. “But if they criticize me a little bit, now, I’m OK with that. And I can take it, and I will try to obviously re-evaluate Thiago every week.”
Set-piece defending. Atlanta United allowed a goal from a corner kick against Charlotte. They allowed a goal from a corner kick against Sporting KC in their season-opening win. They allowed several goals from set pieces during the preseason.
Because Montreal played Wednesday and fielded its first-choice lineup, it likely will field a weaker lineup that will play to get a point Saturday. Getting a point means it will likely bunker and try to score on set pieces because those can be easier than doing so during the run of play.
Pineda said the team worked on set pieces Thursday and said the mistakes are a combination of little things, such as which player is being blocked, assignments, etc.
“Obviously, we can do better,” he said.
Pineda said set pieces are delegated to his assistants, and he was pleased with how the team executed its set-piece attacks. The team had one goal disallowed from a corner kick. Pineda said he’s still not sure what the foul was that resulted in the header by Andrew Gutman to be waived off.
“That’s another positive, I think, the team is feeling capable also to hurt opponents with our attacking set pieces,” he said.
Can Atlanta United beat a bunker? It can be argued that the team’s five goals scored this season have come from broken plays. Even the penalty scored by Martinez, which was the result of Brooks Lennon being fouled in the penalty box, came almost immediately after a restart of play in which subs came onto the field.
The team has yet to score a goal in a “half-court” set when a defense is behind the ball and must be broken apart by using movement and passing.
“If you notice, there has been a lot of moving parts in the team since preseason: players out for internationals, injuries, coming back from different things,” Pineda said. “So, the team hasn’t trained enough all together with the whole squad, so I’m just waiting for that.
“And I’m patient. I think we’ve been making a lot of progress in terms of the identity, of the high pressure, of the desire, the ambitions, the goals, like many, many things culturally, internally in the team and the club, that I feel confident that once everybody’s back, everybody’s here, we can have a couple of good training sessions, and they understand those things more specifically. I think we’re going to improve a lot, but I’m patient for sure.”
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Atlanta United’s 2022 MLS schedule
Feb. 27 Atlanta United 3, Sporting KC 1
March 5 Colorado 3, Atlanta United 0
March 13 Atlanta United 2, Charlotte 1
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., Peachtree TV
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
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com