Atlanta United completed its preseason with many positives: Manager Gerardo’s Martino’s press looks like it can be effective. The players are developing chemistry. The roster pieces seem to fit together well with no obvious holes.
The only negative to the preseason is in four games Atlanta United didn’t get to face a team with both were at their best. The MLS expansion team went 3-1 in its four games.
Chattanooga, a third/fourth division side, had barely practiced in a 4-0 win. Atlanta United has travel issues getting to Charleston for its game against Columbus and looked tired midway through the first half of a 2-1 loss. Seattle didn’t play most of its starters until midway through the second half in a 4-2 win. Charleston is a second/third division side that Atlanta United defeated 2-1 with a goal in the final seconds.
“I learned that we have a lot of resilience,” fullback Mark Bloom said. “The Columbus game was a wake-up call. I thought we responded really well in the Seattle game. I think we will be really confident going into the start of the season.”
Of course, few of Atlanta United’s players have been teammates before, either, so that is also a factor as the team heads into its first week of practices for the regular season.
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Martino said the main thing he learned about his team after four weeks of practices and four games is the competition they will face. He said it was good to see Seattle and Columbus in person.
Second, there are elements of his strategy that the team will need to refine this week.
“We need to sustain the amount of time that we control the ball,” he said. “We have done it for different periods in the games, but I want to see us do it for a longer period of time and be consistent controlling the ball.”
Summing it up, context isn’t complete on the potential of Atlanta United this season. But here are five things learned heading into next week’s season-opening game against New York Red Bulls at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium:
The team’s offense can be really good. Atlanta United showed how it can score in all four games and it did so quickly with goals in each game happening within the first 10 minutes.
Three counter-attacks and a set-piece were scored against Chattanooga.
Another counter-attack led to a goal against Columbus.
And then Atlanta United blitzed Seattle with two goals, one from a turnover and one from a penalty kick, and two more off counter-attacks.
The counter-attacks against Chattanooga and Seattle were particularly impressive because they illustrated how Martino wants the team to play: Atlanta United was able to create turnovers, and quickly flip the field, putting the opponent on its heels.
The defense is still under construction. There have been moments in each game where the defense got caught out. Some of that it is the result of the press. If the opponent can find a way through, it should have numerical advantages. Columbus was able to break through several times, though neither of its goals came from counter-attacks.
While communication and chemistry are important throughout the position groups, it will be especially important for the defense because the centerhalves, along with the holding midfielder, may face difficult situations a few times each game.
Who will start up top? Kenwyne Jones started as a lone striker against Chattanooga. He was joined by Josef Martinez against Columbus. Martinez then started as the lone striker against Seattle. Yamil Asad started against Charleston.
Martino said he thinks Martinez is more comfortable as a single striker, but can also play as a left wing or second striker. Martinez said he can play in either system.
Each brings different skills. Jones is tall, strong and is a huge target for the fullbacks hitting crosses, or when trying to relieve pressure on defense. He didn’t score in the first two games, but had chances.
Martinez is smaller, quicker and would seem to be a better fit in the press. His first goal against Seattle came as a result of stealing a pass from a fullback to the goalkeeper.
Asad seems unlikely to play up top. He’s more of a wide midfielder.
The Designated Players. Because MLS teams are allowed to sign no more than three Designated Players – those with higher salaries and therefore high expectations – it is imperative that teams not miss on these acquisitions.
Atlanta United’s trio of Martinez, Miguel Almiron and Hector Villalba look good, so far. Martinez scored four goals. Villalba scored three. Almiron added two assists and looked very comfortable orchestrating the offense as a central midfielder. Martino tried Almiron as a wide midfielder against Columbus. The offense didn’t look as quick, but that may have been more a result of the travel issues that included the team bus breaking down before it left Alabama, resulting in the team not arriving in Charleston until around 10 p.m. the night before the game. The players and coaches were supposed to arrive around 5:30 p.m.
The rookies. Though he wasn’t the team’s first pick in January’s SuperDraft, Julian Gressel, picked eighth in the first round, could be a steal in the draft. The midfielder has made things happen in every appearance with two assists in the first three games. Miles Robinson, the first pick, has the size and speed to become at least a solid player, if not the potential to be a great one. Anton Walkes, on loan from Tottenham HotSpur, formed a good partnership with Robinson against Charleson. Andrew Wheeler Omiunu’s cross to Villalba was the winning goal against Charleston.