6 questions with Atlanta United roundtable

Atlanta United has played nine games, more than 25 percent of the regular season, and after a bright start has just one win its past six games.

I thought I would convene an online roundtable to solicit opinions of how the team is doing heading into its 10th game against Portland on Sunday.

The contributors are Eric Quintana, who writes for MLSsoccer.com and DirtySouthSoccer.com, Jason Longshore, radio analyst for the team and founder of soccerdownhere.com, Jorge Alonso, a member of Faction, Robyn Saghini, secretary of Terminus Legion, and myself.

Q: Atlanta United has one win its past six games. Is there a reason to be worried?

EQ: Not yet. I think we're seeing certain trends and patterns that are a little concerning, but it's only been nine games and Atlanta United has run into teams playing at their best. Ultimately, Atlanta United is still an expansion team and the club will still go through growing pains much like any other expansion team has and will go through in the future. Injuries certainly haven't helped. It the Seattle Sounders have taught us anything, a team can have a horrendous first half of the year and still be successful. Right now, with Josef Martinez still out, all that Atlanta United fans should hope and cheer for is that the club stay in the mix. As of now, Atlanta United is in the mix.

JL: No. This six game string has seen five of those games played on the road against some of the top teams in MLS. It has also coincided with injuries, suspensions, and other absences that have depleted the roster a bit. At full strength, and when the schedule starts to balance out, this team will be fine.

JA: Not yet. There are still a lot of points in contention and this team still has some kinks to work on.

RS: I don't think so – yet. With the team still being pretty new, I expected a bit of a struggle in the beginning, but then you add in the injuries, suspensions and international duties in the last couple of months, and it isn't much of a surprise. Once everyone is healthy, they have a lot of time to turn this season around.

DR: There is some reason to be worried. Other than a few short spurts in a few games, the team hasn't played as well as its talent would indicate. Really, in the past two games, when it has been 11 on 11 and no special circumstances like first games, early red cards, players missing because of international duty, etc., Atlanta United has looked poor. Even in the win against Real Salt Lake it was more Atlanta United taking advantage of its few chances and RSL not doing so. I don't think that form is a long-term problem, but it is clear that tweaks need to be made with tactics and perhaps personnel.

Q: When Gerardo Martino was hired, the assumption was the offense would be predicated on possession. So far, that hasn’t happened in most games. Was the assumption wrong or are there other factors?

EQ: We were told Atlanta United would have a fast-paced, exciting brand of soccer. I believe we were all misled by the games against New York Red Bulls and the Chicago Fire. Atlanta United is not a possession team first. Atlanta United is a "go to goal as fast as you can" team. Josef Martinez being injured has certainly changed how dynamic and dangerous Atlanta United can be in that regard. Tata Martino has consistently said he won't change the team's style of play and, because of that, the club has looked off with Kenwyne Jones filling in up top.

JL: Tata Martino is not the possession-based manager that some have expected due to his one season at Barcelona. Atlanta United's style has been what he is best known for… high-tempo, pressing, and getting the ball into the final third quickly. It is what won him trophies in Argentina with Newell's Old Boys. This team is built to cause turnovers, and punish teams quickly.

JA: Biggest factor seems to be a disconnect between the back four and the midfield. Miguel Almiron is a great player, both attacking and defending but so far he hasn't found a partner that can pull the team from the back, a role I had assumed Chris McCann would take on, but he hasn't played much this season.

RS: Again, it's still early in the season. I think they're still trying to figure out Tata's system, especially with the lineup changes they've had every week. My hope is that once they settle into a rhythm, there could be no stopping them.

DR: This offense isn't what I thought, which is neither good nor bad. Goals are goals, no matter how they are scored. The team has scored 19 goals, but keep in mind 10, more than half, came when Minnesota United had no idea what was going on and Chicago was playing with 10 men for almost 80 minutes. That means the team is averaging just slightly more than a goal per game in its remaining seven games. That's not the blitz that was expected.

Add in that in the last 160 minutes the offense has looked lost and unable to string together passes and it’s obvious something isn’t quite right.

Q: Who has been the biggest positive surprise this season?

EQ: Greg Garza. Having been injured for the better part of two years, I had no idea what to expect from him. He's shown he's a very good defender and very capable of adding to the attack. We'll have to wait and see how Garza holds up over the course of the entire (or majority) of the season, but as of now, he's been a very pleasant surprise that I hope continues his career with Atlanta beyond this season.

JL: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez has went from a relative unknown to one of the best center backs in MLS. The scary thing is, I don't think we have seen the best of him yet.

JA: Leandro Gonzalez. Effectiveness, Grit, passion, aggression and willingness to move up when needed. Right now he is the absolute leader of the defense and has been the last line of defense in many occasions. He's a no-frills player that gets the job done recent how Atlanta united needs it.

RS: Julian Gressel. No one expected this kid to be picked 8th in the draft or to be starting games from day one. And although his last couple of games haven't been his best, he started really strong this year and I think he's going to develop into a really incredible player for Atlanta and MLS in the future.

DR: Alec Kann has been the biggest surprise. He had less than 10 starts in MLS before earning the starting job and really hasn't done much incorrectly during the regular season. There's not a whole lot he could have done to prevent any of the goals. His distribution could be better, but long passes typically don't have high completion rates. It will be interesting to see what happens when Brad Guzan arrives this summer.

Q: Which starter needs to improve most?

EQ: Tito Villalba. Admittedly, I've been overly critical of Villalba because of his struggles as a winger. He had a fantastic match against Toronto, but he was positioned as a center forward, a position he won't play for 90 percent of the season. His goals as a winger have been more a product of good luck and excellent finishing than actually creating anything that leads to a goal. He's great getting into the final third, but once he's in a position to help his team score he's been unable to connect that final pass or get around defenders. I'm not asking he be perfect with every single chance he gets, but he's missed on too many golden opportunities to either put his team up or end the game early. I, personally, have higher expectations for designated players. This notion is not lost on Villalba himself. He's been quoted saying he needs to be better technically and be a player that scores more than one goal a game.

JL: Yamil Asad's self control must improve for the team to continue to grow. His absence on Sunday crippled the team as it was already missing winger options in Jacob Peterson and Andrew Carleton. He has to buckle down now, especially since referees will likely be watching him closely. His play has been strong and that will need to continue, but he has to be careful not to put himself in positions where referees can give him cards.

JA: Jeff Lawrentowicz and Tyrone Mears. These are experienced players that have struggled to keep up. To a lesser extent Michael Parkhurst seems to have issues with confidence as well. And as praised as he has been, Alec Kann simply doesn't inspire confidence. He's had a lot of kickoffs that ended up in opposing players. His nervousness is obvious and frequently plays to Gonzalez, a much stronger player.

RS: I don't know if he needs to improve really, but Asad needs to be more conscious of his movements (i.e. keeping his elbows down).

DR: Both wingers, Hector Villalba and Yamil Asad, could improve. Villalba tends to disappear far too often, which sometimes happens to players on the flanks, while Asad has to play smarter. His first red card was a bad call. His second should have probably resulted in a longer suspension. With Villalba's speed, it will be interesting to see if Martino tries to devise a way to get him isolated in one-on-one situations more often.

Q: If the team makes a move in the secondary transfer window, what should it be?

EQ: Another Martino-approved striker. Nothing against Kenwyne Jones, but he wasn't a Martino signing and clearly doesn't fit the style of play he's trying to implement in Atlanta. Another winger could also help. My hope is that Andrew Carleton is given an opportunity sometime this summer and shines. There isn't a lot of pressure on the wingers and forwards to perform considering Atlanta's depth in those area's isn't the greatest.

JL: Depth is the most critical need at the moment. A speedy option on the wing is the biggest need right now. Even when Peterson and Carleton are available, there is a major drop in speed when Villalba and Asad are not on the field on the wing. With this team built to play fast, both offensively and defensively, another option that can provide that from the bench is needed.

JA: A secondary creator that can help Almiron in the back end of the field.

RS: I can't imagine them making any changes, but if they did…finding a way to bring Romario Williams back from Charleston for more depth up top, maybe.

DR: A spark off the bench, whether it's a winger, striker or attacking midfielder. Even with Josef Martinez, if Martino needs a goal off the bench there's not really a player that would seem capable of making something out of nothing. It's too much to ask 16-year-old Andrew Carleton go do that. Peterson has had a long and solid career but scoring goals isn't his forte.

Q: We are now more than 25 percent of the way through the schedule, will this team make the playoffs?

EQ: Absolutely. The only bad loss on Atlanta United's schedule right now is against DC United. As the season progresses, and whenever Martinez returns from injury, we'll see a rejuvenated attack and a team that plays with more confidence. The Seattle Sounders were practically dead midway through last season and made the playoffs. Atlanta United is still a dangerous team that can't be overlooked.

JL: Yes. Against a very tough early schedule, this team is roughly where I thought they would be. If they had not dropped points at home, the team would be sailing right now. I think with a more friendly remainder of the schedule, especially when it comes to home games, along with players getting healthy, this squad will be just fine.

JA: I still have hope. The season is long and there are many points still out there. But change needs to come quickly.

RS: Yes. I don't know how far they'll go, but I have no doubt they'll be in the race.

DR: Yes, but it may not be as easy as everyone assumes. While the team has had a difficult schedule to start the season with six of nine games on the road, the home schedule will be nice but will be so compact with so many games in so few days it's almost not an advantage at all.