4 things to watch during Atlanta United’s training camp

FILE - In this Feb. 18, 2020, file photo, Velez Sarsfield coach Gabriel Heinze directs his players during a Copa Sudamericana soccer match against Aucas at the Gonzalo Pozo Ripalda stadium in Quito, Ecuador.  Hoping to recreate the success of its first coach, Atlanta United hired Argentina's Gabriel Heinze on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, to manage the Five Stripes, who endured a miserable season just two years after winning the MLS Cup championship. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 18, 2020, file photo, Velez Sarsfield coach Gabriel Heinze directs his players during a Copa Sudamericana soccer match against Aucas at the Gonzalo Pozo Ripalda stadium in Quito, Ecuador. Hoping to recreate the success of its first coach, Atlanta United hired Argentina's Gabriel Heinze on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, to manage the Five Stripes, who endured a miserable season just two years after winning the MLS Cup championship. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa, File)

Credit: Dolores Ochoa

Credit: Dolores Ochoa

Atlanta United’s fifth training camp began Wednesday.

“Been a long time coming,” Vice President Carlos Bocanegra said Friday in a reference to the team’s poor 2020.

Its first game is less than six weeks away, when it takes on CD Alajuelense in the opening round of the Champions League on April 6 in Costa Rica.

The team has until then to answer several important questions in its pursuit to earn an MLS playoff spot for the fourth time, while playing under a new manager, Gabriel Heinze.

Answers may not come quickly. Almost half the roster has been replaced, and there could be as many as four players in the starting lineup for that opener who weren’t on Atlanta United’s roster at the end of last year’s MLS season.

Things of interest in Atlanta United’s training camp:

1. Gabriel Heinze’s style. Gerardo Martino, Atlanta United’s first manager, was very detail-oriented in the film room and on the training pitch. The players on the team at the time seemed to appreciate his focus and ability to communicate.

Though he could speak English as well as Spanish, Frank de Boer, the team’s second manager, seemed to have more difficulty getting his ideas and desires across to the players. As a result, the team at times struggled, particularly when it came to executing in the final third. When it became apparent that the team wasn’t going to be able to build on the two trophies won under de Boer in 2019, he and the team parted ways midway through 2020. The team did play slightly better under interim manager Stephen Glass, but at one goal per game, it was nothing close to what it was at any point in its first three seasons, when the team averaged 1.94 goals per game.

Will Heinze be more like Martino or more like de Boer? Though not very illuminating in his one news conference since he was named manager, it seems probable that Heinze will be more like Martino because they count some of the same influences, namely Marcelo Bielsa, a man known to produce preparatory books ahead of each game.

That work started with the beginning of training camp.

“The last few days with Gabby being out there taking over the team, we’ve been able to get right into it,” Bocanegra said. “Professionalism of our guys in the offseason, staying prepared … has enabled Gabby and his staff to have the intensity they like to train at from Day 1.”

Bocanegra said that Heinze has been very detail-oriented and is starting to get his desires across to the players through videos, on-field exercises and conversations.

“Been a fun first few days to watch and intense first few days for the players,” Bocanegra said.

As part of it preparations for the Champions League, and to help Heinze teach his players, the team is scheduling 4-5 exhibition games against regional opponents. The team will stay in Atlanta throughout its training camp. In past, non-COVID years it has spent part of camps in Charleston, S.C., Bradenton, Fla., Citrus Ridge, Fla. and Fullerton, Calif.

2. Josef Martinez’s health. Had Martinez not suffered a season-ending knee injury in the team’s first league at Nashville, de Boer might still be the team’s manager. That is as speculative as wondering whether Martinez will be as good as he was his first three seasons with the club, when he scored 77 goals in 83 games. Based upon his posts on social media, Martinez and his injured right knee appear ready to go. It remains to be seen if he will be able to a stretch of three games in a week, for example, early in the season. If not, the team added Lisandro Lopez and re-signing Erick Torres should Martinez need a rest.

With six weeks of training camp, the team should get a good idea of how much Martinez can give and for how long.

Bocanegra said Friday that the expectation is for Martinez to be able to start April 6.

“His movement, shooting and tackling with teammates, he looks like the old Josef,” Bocanegra said.

3. Who wins the DM spot. There are three players competing to start at the pivotal defensive midfielder, or deep-lying midfielder position: Mo Adams, who started nine games as part of 13 appearances last season, Santiago Sosa, acquired from River Plate, and Franco Ibarra, acquired from Argentinos Juniors. The position is key for Heinze because the position requires someone who is good in one-on-one situations on defense, can hit a 40-yard pass on offense, and has the intellect to read plays as they are developing so that they can put himself in proper positions on offense and defense. The player will drop between the centerbacks when the fullbacks are engaged up field, or get up field as another attacking midfielder. It’s a lot.

“They are young,” Bocanegra said. “We will still have a few mistakes and errors in there. There’s so much upside. Energy, physicality ... that steel in the midfield. It’s a different profile than we’ve had in a while.”

4. Which Ezequiel Barco shows up? Through three seasons, Barco has yet to produce (10 goals, nine assists) as much as Hector Villalba did in his first season (13 goals, 11 assists), and Villalba was the player whose contract was bought down so that Barco could be added for a price of $13.5 million. Barco has shown flashes of potential, but that typically has been followed by injuries and then stretches of … nothing. For example, his final five games last season produced zero goals and zero assists. He missed the previous seven games because of injuries. If he doesn’t produce, there will be competition from Erik Lopez and Jake Mulraney. If Barco can become strong enough to stay on his feet more frequently, it may go a long way toward improving his production.

More important, Barco’s effort on defense may determine how much faith Heinze has in him. The team is going to press. It will require constant effort. Barco has shown that he will put in that effort, even if the results don’t always come.

In Other News