Atlanta United finished Saturday’s 1-0 win over Colorado with a right fullback who had all of three appearances in MLS, and a right midfielder who had all of five.
The fact that Anton Walkes and Brandon Vazquez were in the game in the crucial final minutes wasn’t necessitated by injuries or red cards.
Gerardo Martino wanted them in the game, and they could become pivotal role players in the second half of the season, particularly when games start piling up in September.
“I think (Anton) played well. He showed character tonight, especially since he found that he was going to play in our technical talk before the game,” Martino said. “So, considering that he did well.”
Walkes, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur in England’s Premier League, made his first league start in a position he hasn’t played in years because Martino said other players needed some rest. Walkes held his own, making two tackles on defense and creating two chances on offense.
He said he was proud to be a part of a group that kept a clean sheet, the first since March, and that he thought he got up and down the field well.
He said he needs to improve on his crosses so that they reach the feet of the playmakers. He said at least two of his crosses hit the first man in defense.
“If I do get the opportunity again I hope my delivery is a lot better,” he said.
Walkes, 20, said he consistently talks with the coaches at Tottenham, including after Saturday’s performance. He said they told him his appearance at right fullback was a good building point.
Walkes said he doesn’t know if he has a future at right back here or in England, but playing different positions — and soliciting feedback from different people — should only help his growth during this season-long loan.
“Whatever happens, I just hope I can come out of it as a better player,” he said.
Vazquez, 18, entered the Colorado game in the 64th minute for Hector Villalba in his developing role as a super-sub on offense.
“Brandon has come on a few times now in that right wing position, and we have noticed that he is growing,” Martino said. “It is evident to us that he is learning new things every game. So, he is growing into that position.”
It’s a role that seems to be working well for him. He scored his first goal against Real Salt Lake as a sub. He scored his second goal in his first start for the team in the U.S. Open Cup, and then notched his first league assist in the win against Colorado.
“I’m getting used to coming in at the last minute supporting the players that have been there since the start,” Vazquez said. “I feel coming in with fresh legs is a lot of help for them. I think my role is that.”
Vazquez started the season as a striker, but found minutes hard to come by because of Josef Martinez and Kenwyne Jones. Martinez’s injury in late March opened a door for Vazquez to start making some of the 18-man game-day rosters and then getting a few minutes of playing time.
Martinez returned a few weeks ago but then Jones has suffered a possible injury with a diagnoses that hadn’t been revealed as of last week.
The possible injury to Jones and Vazquez’s performance, as well the logjam of games that continues with Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup match against Miami, may mean more chances to make game-day rosters and potentially impact games, just like he did in assisting on Martinez’s game-winning goal against Colorado.
Walkes could also make more 18s for the same reasons: versatility, results and a glut of games.
“That shows that those guys are doing things well and training hard,” Martinez said of Vazquez and Walkes. “It shows that Atlanta, were not just a group of experienced guys with established players, but that we also have some young, up-and-coming guys who can step in. In soccer, it’s really important because opportunities are sometimes few and far between. When you get those opportunities you have to take advantage of them.”