Five things learned during Atlanta United’s preseason

Credit: Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United

Credit: Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United

Atlanta United wrapped up its preseason with a 4-0 victory against Birmingham on Sunday in Alabama.

The team went 4-2 in its friendlies.

Each game offered moments of hope that this season the Five Stripes will truly contend for an MLS title, as well as moments of worry that this season could be similar to the wrecks that were 2020, when the team missed the playoffs for the first time, and the beginning of ‘21, when the franchise was almost wrecked by previous manager Gabriel Heinze.

The team will this week start preparing for its MLS opener on Sunday hosting Sporting KC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Here are a few things learned during the past five weeks of preseason training.

The formation. Manager Gonzalo Pineda used a two-centerback, two-fullback system exclusively in each of the games. It’s a change from the three-centerback, two-wingback system he preferred last season. The new system worked well. Even during its worst game, a loss to Chivas in Guadalajara, Mexico, the three goals allowed were the result of individual mistakes or officiating decisions, rather than issues with the zonal marking or a lack of communication. Was the system perfect? No. Birmingham found cracks in the first half but couldn’t exploit them. A better team may be able to do so. Of course, it was just the second game that centerbacks Miles Robinson and George Campbell, with midfielder Ozzie Alonso, had played together. They will improve as the season progresses.

The offense within the formation. The formation was changed in order to get another midfielder on to try to spark the offense. Last season, it became pretty clear that if there wasn’t a moment of brilliance, such as Josef Martinez’s goal in the finale against Cincinnati, then the team was going to have trouble scoring. Birmingham offered the best examples of what the offense can be when the players are doing what Pineda wants: making runs behind the last line, finding spaces between the midfield and back line, passing and moving. The second goal, scored by Martinez following a perfectly weighted lob by Amar Sejdic to Matheus Rossetto, who backheeled the ball to Martinez, was among the prettiest scored by the club ... ever. The third goal featured Ronald Hernandez, the right fullback, making a run across the back line to receive another pass from Sejdic, who again found a hole in Birmingham’s defense, at the far post, some 30 yards from where he started his run, to score from close range. That is what Pineda wants to see, not the static, standing-around stuff that the offense de-evolved into last season.

Those runs are the result of ... Ozzie Alonso, playing defensive midfielder, dominating Birmingham’s midfield. Alonso, 36 years old, was signed as a free agent to add some steel and experience in the team’s midfield. Pineda said he was a monster against Birmingham. When Alonso is winning balls, or forcing the other team to dribble or pass into weaker spots on the field, Atlanta United will play well. Because he was so effective, Rossetto and Sejdic had more freedom to get up the field and add numbers to the attack. When they moved up, it forced Birmingham’s defenders to make choices. When a defender has to make choices, sometimes they will make a mistake. Because of Alonzo’s play, Birmingham’s defenders were making mistakes. Alonso will likely start at least the first game because Santiago Sosa, who started 25 games last season, missed the entire preseason recovering from offseason sports hernia surgery. Franco Ibarra, who started a few of the preseason games, is also recovering from an injury picked up against Chivas two weeks ago.

Speaking of injuries, or depth ... The presumed first team has yet to play together and may not do so for weeks. Sosa and Emerson Hyndman have been recovering from injuries. Thiago Almada, signed as a Designated Player late in the preseason, logged 50 minutes against Chivas. He’s in Argentina working on his visa. Josef Martinez, Miles Robinson, Ronald Hernandez and Brooks Lennon missed most of camp because they were with their national teams. Lennon picked up an injury during that camp so he has also missed the preseason. Marcelino Moreno picked up what the team described as a small knock in the first week of camp but it prevented him from playing in any of the friendlies. Pineda keeps describing these injuries as day to day. The good news for the team is that it allowed Pineda to give other players time and most of them did well. Hernandez, in place of Lennon, scored. Sejdic had three assists against Birmingham in place of Hyndman or Moreno. Tyler Wolff struggled against Birmingham but looked sharp on the left wing, where either Almada or Moreno will likely play, in the previous friendlies. Fullback Caleb Wiley, signed as a Homegrown, showed that physically he is ready if Andrew Gutman or Mikey Ambrose aren’t. Draft pick Erik Centeno showed some moves as a winger.

Lastly, the Designated Players ... Atlanta United will only go as far as Martinez, Almada and Luiz Araujo will carry them. They are the presumed goal scorers. Other than Moreno, there aren’t a lot of goal-scoring threats on the roster. Araujo showed that he has the potential to be a double-digit goal scorer and assist provider ... if he can cut down on his turnovers. Everything else is there. He’s a smooth dribbler, tenacious presser and counter-presser, and has a good eye for a pass and shot. Almada looked solid in his 50 minutes, putting two shots on goal and providing Martinez with a scoring opportunity. It will be interesting to see if he plays on the wing or as an attacking midfielder. That brings us to Martinez, who scored two goals against Birmingham after being mostly ineffective against Chivas. He looks quicker and sharper than he did last year when he was still recovering from several surgeries on his right knee. Both of his goals against Birmingham were well-taken. And, in a very good sign, Martinez ran almost the length of the field to play defense in the final minutes against Birmingham when his team was already comfortably ahead. That’s a sign of leadership and one Pineda said he appreciated.

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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 9 at Charlotte, 3 p.m., ESPN

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