3 things to watch in Atlanta United preseason opener

Two years, nine months and 26 days after MLS commissioner Don Garber announced that Atlanta was getting an MLS expansion franchise, the team will play its first game, albeit preseason, when it takes on Chattanooga on Saturday at Finley Stadium in Tennessee.

It has been a long ride since, led by club president Darren Eales and technical director Carlos Bocanegra to pick a name (Atlanta United) and colors (red, black and gold), hire a manager (Gerardo Martino) and assemble a roster of players featuring a balance of inexperience with potential and MLS veterans that is catching the notice of those who follow MLS.

But everyone is happy until their team allows the first goal.

Here are three things to watch:

The lineups. Martino said he is considering starting different 11s for each half of the game and that he will attempt to play everyone who is in camp and has been training.

It will be interesting to see if he mixes and matches. For example, will he consider using the preferred starters on defense with those fighting for spots in the midfield and at forward, and then flip it for the next half? Or will he decide on the starters based upon their work in training camp at all positions for the first half, and then the remaining players in the second half?

It would be surprising if all three Designated Players, Hector Villalba, Miguel Almiron (if he's cleared by trainers) and Josef Martinez, don't start and play the first 45 minutes. It would also be surprising if Kenwyne Jones and Chris McCann, two of the longest-tenured players on the expansion squad, also don't start.

Either way, it would be premature to project who starts onto the potential lineup for the season-opening game March 5 against New York Red Bulls at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium.

The tactics and formation. Martino has said many times he prefers to a play a 4-3-3, with four fullbacks, three midfielders and three forwards (or two wingers and one forward). He also has said he thinks the team has the personnel to play a 4-2-3-1, which is four fullbacks, two holding midfielders, three midfielders and one forward.

The personnel seems better suited to playing a 4-2-3-1, but there’s not that much difference between the two formations.

No matter the formation, Martino said he wants to see effort from the players and the beginning of the understanding of the tactics they have been implementing since training camp started Jan. 23 in Bradenton, Fla. Those tactics include the fullback playing up the field — a high line — and the midfielders and forwards aggressively pursuing the other team when it has the ball. Should the other team lose the ball in Atlanta United’s half, Martino wants to see his team break out quickly into the opponent’s half.

“I’d like to start to see symptoms of what the team will play like during the season,” he said.

The chemistry. One way to tell if the chemistry is good will be to watch the number of runs made by Atlanta United in the opponent's third. If there are a lot of runs being made by the forwards, midfielders or outside fullbacks, that likely means there is communication and therefore developing chemistry. The players wouldn't make the runs for no reason. If the players are standing around in the offensive end, it may mean they are still learning each other and the nuances of their games.

Jeff Larentowicz and Almiron said Thursday that the chemistry is developing.

“We are going to arrive in good form on Saturday,” Almiron said.

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