With his team aggressively trying to force Columbus into making a mistake, Atlanta United midfielder Chris McCann stepped into front of a poor pass in the Crew’s half of the field.
He looked up and split Columbus’ back line with a pass to forward Josef Martinez, who passed it to his right to Hector Villalba, who had quickly switched from defense to offense. Villalba crossed the ball back into the penalty box, where Martinez headed it home to give Atlanta United a 1-0 lead in an exhibition game last month.
That sequence exemplifies how Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino wants to see his midfielders work together and with the other positions group in the MLS expansion team’s first season.
“It’s still something we are all learning, still trying to figure out the identity of the team,” wide midfielder Jacob Peterson said. “We know it will reflect our coach. I still think we will learn more and more.”
Martino described what he wants to see from the different midfielders — holding, wide and attacking midfielders — this year. Atlanta United will open the season on Sunday, hosting New York Red Bulls at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium.
How midfielders work:
Holding midfielders: A holding midfielder operates just in front of the defense. Martino said he prefers to use just one but some teams use two.
“He’s the one who organizes how they will press,” Martino said. “He will support the high press. And he balances the team when they are in attack.”
Jeff Larentowicz, Carlos Carmona and McCann will likely fill that role in most games.
“In our scheme, with pressure we want to play with, the holding midfielder is important to clog up the middle of the field and to create turnovers when the opportunity is there,” Larentowicz said.
Similar to a middle linebacker in football, the holding midfielder remains in the middle of the formation and is expected to make plays.
“It’s not novel,” Larentowicz said. “A holding midfielder is an organizer, it’s a defender, obviously. Someone that begins the attack, someone that creates turnovers and disrupts the opponent’s attack.
Attacking midfielders: They have the most responsibilities both offensively and defensively.
“It’s important for us that they attack, but also get back to defend,” Martino said.
Attacking midfielders can drift all over the field to provide numerical advantages. In a preseason win against Chattanooga, Miguel Almiron drifted back to help defend a set piece, tracked down a clearance and dribbled more than 40 yards before passing to Villalba, who scored the first goal in Atlanta United’s history.
Almiron, McCann, Julian Gressel and Kevin Kratz can play as the position.
“For an attacking midfielder, it’s very important to find the holes between the lines, between the centerbacks and the holding midfielders,” Kratz said. “Move around there, just try to get into open space so that you can turn when you get the ball.”
On defense, they must work to keep the other team on the right side or the left side, “So that everybody knows we can attack them there and try to get the ball back as fast as possible,” Kratz said.
Wide midfielders: They do precisely what the name implies: stay wide. If the opposing fullbacks or midfielders stay in compact position, the wide midfielders should have space to get off crosses.
“When the defense is stretched, it creates diagonal (spaces) between the backs and centerbacks,” Martino said.
If the opposing fullbacks choose to come out to engage the wide midfielders, that should create space in the middle of the field to attack or give the wide midfielders a chance to beat their opponents on the dribble.
Villalba, Martinez, Almiron, Peterson, Yamil Asad, and Andrew Carleton are a few of the players that will fill the wide midfielder roles.
“The wingers are an important aspect,” Peterson said. “They have to have good positional awareness. It’s really important to put the opposing team’s defense under pressure in the half. Then we won’t have to go as far to score. It’s easier when you win the ball in the attacking half.
“The flip side of that is (Martino) expects the wingers to be dangerous, be creative, when we get into more advanced attacking positions.”