3 things to watch in Atlanta United’s preseason

Atlanta United, led by president Darren Eales, manager Gerardo Martino and technical director Carlos Bocanegra, will start preseason camp on Monday.

Atlanta United, led by president Darren Eales, manager Gerardo Martino and technical director Carlos Bocanegra, will start preseason camp on Monday.

Atlanta United’s players will report for training camp on Monday, when they will fly to Bradenton, Fla. for the first training session for the 2017 MLS season on Tuesday.

Technical director Carlos Bocanegra said manager Gerardo Martino will have between 36-38 players to work with, including several from the academy, as he begins to craft the roster that will open the season against New York Red Bulls at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium on March 5.

MLS teams can have 18 active players on gameday from a roster that can have as many as 28 players.

The team will play four preseason games: against Chattanooga at Finley Stadium on Feb. 11, vs. Columbus on Feb. 18, vs. Seattle on Feb. 22, and vs. Charleston, its USL affiliate on Feb. 25. The final three games will be in Charleston.

Here are three to watch during the preseason:

1. Developing chemistry. As with any sport in any league, the first season can be difficult for an expansion team. Players don't know each other. The manager and his assistants doesn't know the players. The players don't know the manager. Seattle was the last MLS expansion team to make the playoffs in its first year, 2009.

This may be especially difficult for Atlanta United, which not only is new, but which will also be nomadic during preseason with stops in four states while its headquarters in Marietta are under construction, still has an incomplete roster with one Designated Player and several other spots open, and once the season starts will play in two different home stadiums while it waits on construction of the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium to end. The team is supposed to open it against Orlando City on July 30.

MLS analyst and former U.S. national team player Alexi Lalas said the players need to find a comfort level with each other and with Martino to develop the chemistry necessary to make the season a success. Martino’s background seems perfect for the job. Not only has he led clubs in lesser-followed leagues to titles, he has managed some of the giant teams and personalities in the game as the leader of Barcelona and then the Argentina national team. Getting away from Atlanta may help him because doing so will enable the coaching staff and players to concentrate on nothing but soccer for the next few weeks.

The good for Atlanta United is it already has several MLS veterans with Jeff Larentowicz, Michael Parkhurst, Jacob Peterson, Zach Loyd, Alec Kann and Mark Bloom who understand the different challenges. The team also has veterans of other leagues Kenwyne Jones, Greg Garza and Chris McCann. Their experiences may make Martino’s job a little bit easier.

2. Finding the right formation. During his introductory press conference, Martino said he would like to play a 4-3-3 formation, with four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards (or a forward and two wingers). It's a fluid formation that can be changed pretty easily depending upon what the opponent is doing or the tactic needed. The constant is typically the four defenders, with the two fullbacks typically trying to get up the field to aid the offense.

It seems, based upon the players being signed, that the 4-3-3 may actually be a 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, 4-1-3-2. The 2 or 1 in front the defense being considered as a defensive midfielder(s) whose job it is to shield the backline from counter-attacks, or to start them for the offense.

The problem is Atlanta United doesn’t have a dedicated defensive midfielder. It has several players that can assume that role in McCann, Larentowicz, Kevin Kratz or draftee Julian Gressel. That versatility is the benefit, but also potential puzzle, that Martino and his staff must solve.

There are very few players (the goalkeepers and Jones) who can’t play a variety of roles. Now, Martino has to figure out which position is best for each player within that group, which includes Designated Player signings Hector Villalba, who can play on the wing as a midfielder or a forward, and Miguel Almiron, a playmaking central midfielder who can also play on the wing.

3. Finding the 24 players from which to draw the 18. This will be the most interesting and scrutinized aspect of Martino's job. It would seem that there are already quite a few locks for the 18 in the MLS veterans, the players drafted in the first round (Miles Robinson and Gressel) and the Designated Players.

And then there are the veterans like McCann and Jones who likely wouldn’t have agreed to this move if they weren’t reasonably certain to play. But there are also wildcards in forwards Romario Williams, who seems to have proven himself on the USL level after failing to break in with Montreal, the team that drafted him, and Brandon Vazquez, a U.S. youth international, as well as Homegrown Player signings Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin.

One of the reasons that club president Darren Eales hired Martino was the Argentinian believes in developing youth. Eales and Bocanegra have stressed that no one has already been penciled into the 11. Eales has gone so far to say that this may be the best chance for one of the academy players to earn a spot on the senior roster.

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