Atlanta United players celebrate the third goal scored by forward Josef Martinez (right) in the preseason opening win against Chattanooga. (Miguel Martinez)

What to expect from Atlanta United’s forwards

The fullback didn’t notice Josef Martinez lurking nearby when he casually passed the ball toward his goalkeeper.

Martinez pounced, intercepting the pass, faking out the goalkeeper, and scoring to give Atlanta United a 1-0 lead in first minute of their game against Seattle in the Carolina Challenge Cup.

While forwards on any soccer team are required to score, Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino also asks his forwards, or strikers, to serve as the first line of defense.

Martinez aggressively pressing the Seattle defender, stealing the ball, and scoring is the best example from the preseason of how Martino wants them to play.

“They start the press,” he said. “They are in charge of starting the pressure and indicate to everyone behind them (what to do).”

Atlanta United has three strikers that Martino can deploy either alone at the top of the formation, or in tandem. Kenwyne Jones is a 32-year-old native of Trinidad and Tobago and veteran of the leagues in England. He’s big (6-f00t-2), so he provides an aerial threat on set pieces and as a capable defender on opponent’s set piece. It was his headed clearance on a cross by Chattanooga that sprung Miguel Almiron, who made the pass to Hector Villalba that led to Atlanta United’s opening game against Chattanooga.

Josef Martinez is one of the team’s three Designated Players. The 23-year-old native of Venezuela and veteran of Italy’s first division offers a different skill set than Jones. Martinez is smaller (5-7) and quicker. It was his quickness and tactical acumen that helped him score the goal against Seattle. But of the four goals he scored in the first three preseason games, two came on headed shots.

Brandon Vazquez may be the team’s future. The 18-year-old Texas native has a skill set more like Jones than Martinez. At 6-3, he also is a big target on set pieces, as a defender on set pieces, or as an outlet for passes to relieve pressure on Atlanta United’s defense. He said he prides himself on his hold-up play, which is a term used to describe someone who can control the ball long enough for teammates to push forward.

“Center forward is a big piece in the team,” Vazquez said. “It’s our first line of defense: Me and Josef and Kenwyne. We are the first ones to pressure, we are the ones looking to score. We are the ones our defenders look to get out of our half.”

Martino prefers to play a 4-3-3 system, with four defenders, three midfielders, two wide midfielders and a forward.

Just as Martinez did against Seattle, the forward will start the defensive pressure. He will indicate to teammates playing behind him which way to try to force the opponent with the ball, so that the pressure can be maximized.

“The team follows us to make sure we are supported so that we can get the ball back as fast as possible,” Vazquez said.

If the turnover can’t be created deep in the opponent’s half, and the pressure is broken by the opponent, the forward must still track back to help on defense.

“Pressure high, listen and then act,” Martino said.

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