5 things to watch for Atlanta United in 2021

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Here are five things to watch this season for Atlanta United:

Josef Martinez. Duh. Much has been written about how the striker’s absence affected Atlanta United last season. It’s the “butterfly flaps its wings” theory. If Martinez hadn’t suffered a torn ACL in the first MLS game at Nashville, and had remained healthy, would the team have made the playoffs? Would Frank de Boer still be in charge? Would Pity Martinez still be on the team (with a presumption that his agent eventually started shopping his client to get out of a bad season with the club)? Who knows? But as awful as it was for Martinez, it may have opened the windows for the team to move on from de Boer and hire Gabriel Heinze, whom most would consider an upgrade. It allowed the team to move on from Pity Martinez and sign Marcelino Moreno, which again is another upgrade. Now, with Josef Martinez healthy, how will he affect the team under the aggressive Heinze, who is much more similar to previous manager Gerardo Martino in his desire to dictate games rather than he is to de Boer, who seemed to want to read and react more. If Martinez plays 2,000 minutes, the Five Stripes will be tough to beat this season.

Ezequiel Barco. Barco wasn’t bought to produce only 10 goals and six assists in the past three seasons. But that’s been the return. This year is huge for him and the club if he hopes to go to Europe and Atlanta United hopes to make a return on its investment. Barco has everything one would think he needs: a manager who wants to play at a quick tempo, a healthy Josef Martinez and Marcelino Moreno as targets for passes or as distractions for defenses, good defensive cover with George Bello behind him if he’s on the wing and a host of players behind him if he’s in the middle, and the experience gained from the past three seasons. Now, he just has to stay healthy play. That’s it. He’s yet to make more than 20 starts in a season. If he can make at least 20 starts, he should have a good year and Atlanta United should receive some decent offers. Things are working out well so far. He has one goal and one assist and has looked dangerous, particularly when in the middle of the formation.

Development of Miles Robinson, George Bello and Santiago Sosa. Barco isn’t the only asset the club has. Robinson, Bello and possibly Sosa, if they play well this season, could become targets of clubs in Europe. Buying Americans seems to be the rage right now, and Robinson and Bello did earn call-ups to the U.S. men’s national team last year. Both are fast, strong, aggressive and smart. A year under Heinze could be enormous for Bello in his reading of situations. It also could benefit Robinson on how to take advantage of set pieces. Sosa may have more potential than either of them. He just needs consistent playing time, something he wasn’t getting at River Plate, to fulfill his potential. All three looked very good in the team’s first two games in the Champions League in helping the squad post consecutive shutouts.

How Heinze uses the depth. Atlanta United’s schedule is packed. Because of international breaks mandated by FIFA for national-team competitions, the Five Stripes’ schedule is 34 league games compressed into 23 weeks. The team will play on short rest (four or less days from one game to next) at least 12 times. There’s also the Champions League and possibly the U.S. Open Cup. Heinze can’t favor starting the same 11 again and again. The good news is this team potentially ranks among the deepest in the East. If Josef Martinez can’t start, bring on Lisandro Lopez with his 190 goals scored during his career, or Erick Torres. If Barco needs a rest, there’s Moreno or Jake Mulraney or Erik Lopez, depending upon the position. If Lennon needs a rest, bring on Ronald Hernandez. It goes on and on.

The Homegrowns. In addition to Bello, the team has five more Homegrowns: centerbacks George Campbell and Efrain Morales, winger Machop Chol, midfielder Tyler Wolff and striker Jackson Conway. Depending upon COVID-19 protocols agreed to by MLS and USL, it seems likely that these players are going to train most of the time with Atlanta United, but earn most of their playing minutes this season with Atlanta United 2. That’s OK. They need playing minutes to improve so that when Heinze does need them to make a spot start or come off the bench they will be ready.