Atlanta United’s Julian Gressel clears a ball during a game against  FC Dallas at Toyota Stadium July 4, 2018 in Frisco, Texas. (Photo/Richard W. Rodriguez)
Photo: Richard W. Rodriguez
Photo: Richard W. Rodriguez

Plugging in fullbacks, Atlanta United defense rolls along

With Julian Gressel’s start as right fullback in last week’s win against Orlando City, Atlanta United has used six different players as fullbacks this season because of injuries.

Despite the problems inherent with using a stream of different players on the edges of the defense, the Five Stripes continue to roll. The team is second in points (54) in MLS, first in goal difference (plus-25) and tied for second in fewest goals allowed (25). The team will play at D.C. United on Sunday.

Captain Michael Parkhurst and defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said the key to the success is coaching, preparation and soccer IQ.

“It’s a credit to the guys that have stepped in that they get up to speed quickly,” Parkhurst said. “Everybody on the team is aware of the different responsibilities on the team. You never know when you are going to have to step into a different position and help someone out.

“Can’t be understated how important that is. We are reaping the benefits of guys being able to do that. That’s a big part of a season-long team: guys being able to step in for injured players and getting the job done.”

Gressel, who assisted on the game-winning goal, was in on the right side of the 4-2-3-1 formation because of an injury to Franco Escobar, who had 10 starts in that position as part of 16 overall. Sal Zizzo, Escobar’s backup, is likely out for the season after sustaining a knee injury.

On the left, Chris McCann made his fifth start in a 4-2-3-1 against Orlando. He was in because Greg Garza (two starts at left fullback and eight more as a wingback when the team plays in a 3-5-2) and Mikey Ambrose (five starts at left fullback and three more as a wingback) are out with injuries. Garza (shoulder) may return before the playoffs. Ambrose (knee) may be out for the season.

If manager Gerardo Martino sticks with the 4-2-3-1, Gressel may continue to start. Martino said that, as he has typically done, Gressel did a “satisfactory job.”  It is the fifth position in which the German made a start this season. The reigning MLS Rookie of the Year, whom Larentowicz said has a high soccer IQ, has 25 starts this season with two goals and 10 assists.

Gressel didn’t get a chance to train at the position before Orlando City because Escobar didn’t suffer his injury until two days before the game. He said he mentally tired after the game because playing the position is much different than the others he has played: right wingback, right midfielder, defensive midfielder and attacking midfielder.

“I thought I played OK,” he said. “There are some things I want to work on and I will work on.”

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