August 27, 2019 Atlanta: Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank and head coach Frank de Boer share a hug as they celebrate defeating Minnesota United 2-1 to win the U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday, August 27, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Things to watch in Atlanta United’s training camp

Atlanta United will open training camp for its fourth season Monday at its headquarters in Marietta. 

Its preseason will include trips to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., as well as far -- Mexico to prepare for the upcoming Champions League -- and near, Birmingham, Ala., for a preseason game. 

It will be manager Frank de Boer’s second preseason camp leading the Five Stripes. His first was affected by Pity Martinez’s late arrival and Darlington Nagbe’s reluctance to participate with the first team for more than a week. 

Still, the team overcame the drama to advance past its opening round in the Champions League and finished with two trophies, the Campeones Cup and the U.S. Open Cup. 

Martinez is scheduled to be back. Nagbe was traded, leaving a hole in the starting lineup that has yet to be filled, but Vice President Carlos Bocanegra said help could be coming with a signing. 

There will still be drama because the team has only 22 signed players, including several, such as rookies George Campbell and Luiz Nascimento, who haven’t had chances to prove themselves in MLS, or others, such as Andrew Carleton and Lagos Kunga, who have yet to prove themselves. 

And there is still a contract situation with Julian Gressel that has yet to be resolved. 

And there are still numerous holes, including in the midfield, on the roster that must be filled if the team wants to give itself the best chance to win trophies. 

Here are several things to watch over the next few weeks before the team’s first game against Motagua in Honduras on Feb. 18. The league season will open Feb. 29 at expansion side Nashville. 

New faces. Atlanta United has been tied with players from England to Argentina to Mexico. It has signed two new players: Anton Walkes, who can play centerback and right back, and Fernando Meza, who can play centerback, right back and defensive midfielder. It also traded with Real Salt Lake for Brooks Lennon and completed the loan-to-buy on Emerson Hyndman. 

Bocanegra said Thursday that the club is expected to sign as many as four players who can compete for starting spots. One was Meza. Bocanegra said they are still operating under the rules of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, which is set to expire at the end of the month and currently is being negotiated between the MLS Players Association and the league. 

Atlanta United played 47 games last year and could do so again this year. That’s a lot of games with a thin roster. 

New centerback tandem. The only returning starter is Miles Robinson after the team sold Leandro Gonzalez Pirez to Tijuana in Mexico. The group is thin because of Michael Parkhurst’s retirement and the team’s decision not to bring back Flo Pogba. 

Meza seems likely to be the starter beside Robinson. Walkes, who played for the team mostly as a right back in 2017, will compete for a starting spot, as will Homegrown signee George Campbell and draft pick Patrick Nielsen. Also in the pool are Campbell and Franco Escobar, who mostly has played as a fullback or wingback, and Jeff Larentowicz, who mostly has played a defensive midfielder. 

Nagbe replacement. Nagbe, an invaluable central midfielder, was traded to Columbus more than six weeks ago. The team acknowledged after the trade that there likely won’t be a like-for-like replacement for Nagbe, who often was used as an outlet when opponents were pressing to keep the ball and get it to teammates. 

Bocanegra hinted that one of the incoming signees will play the box-to-box midfielder role that Nagbe owned. 

It’s not clear if Hyndman is seen as a possible replacement for Nagbe. Hyndman often played more as an attacking midfielder last season while on loan from Bournemouth. 

There were times last season when de Boer used Eric Remedi in Nagbe’s role. That also is a possibility this season. 

Left back. Continuing the trend of holes in the lineup, the team has one left fullback, George Bello. He didn’t start a game for the team in the league last season because of injuries. In the offseason, the team decided not to bring back Brek Shea, Mikey Ambrose and Justin Meram, each of whom started games last season as a fullback or wingback. It also declined to bring back Jose Hernandez. 

Bocanegra sang Bello’s praises Thursday, saying he has all the tools and that “it’s a big year” for him. Bello was supposed to be the starter last year, but an injury sustained in the first Champions League game in Costa Rica eventually resulted in him spending most of the season with Atlanta United 2. 

Bello will need competition, and Bocanegra said one of the players the club is expected to sign will provide that competition. 

Lennon can play left back, but naturally is a right wingback or fullback. 

The dynamic duo. Martinez and Ezequiel Barco, two of the team’s three Designated Players, are expected to stay with the club, according to Bocanegra. 

Neither player was consistent last season for different reasons. 

Martinez was adjusting to a new country, league, team, etc. He finished with five goals and nine assists in 32 appearances. De Boer tried him at several different positions across the midfield and as a second striker in an attempt to find a position where he could influence games. 

Barco was affected by various injuries that limited him to 15 appearances in league games. He finished with four goals and three assists. In the beginning of the season, when the majority of his goals were scored, Bocanegra said he arguably was the team’s MVP. The team declined to let him participate with the Argentina U23 national team in January because they want him to stay with the club while it works on tactics and builds chemistry. 

Gressel. He wants a new contract that improves the deal he signed as a rookie that pays him less than $200,000 annually. It can be argued that he deserves a new contract after scoring 15 goals with 35 assists the past three seasons, during which he has 98 appearances and started at least six different positions. 

Bocanegra didn’t sound hopeful Thursday, saying the club is having internal discussions. That’s a lot different than what he said in November, which was the two sides were talking. 

Bocanegra said he expects Gressel to report to training camp Monday. 

It will be interesting to see how Gressel reacts. When Nagbe hoped for a trade last year, he attended training camp but didn’t really participate for more than a week.

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