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Possible Atlanta United Lineups In 2021


Image courtesy of AJC

Atlanta United fans are coming into the new season with great optimism. A lot of that has been down to an out with the old, in with the new offseason. Last season was disappointing for many reasons, the main one being Atlanta United wasn’t the Atlanta United that proved doubters wrong in saying the city of Atlanta wasn’t a soccer city. It wasn’t the Atlanta United filling a state of the art Mercedes Benz Stadium and breaking attendance records left and right. And most importantly, it wasn’t the winning Atlanta United fans had come to know and love.

I think a lot more of that than people realize is down to injuries and trades, more so than coaching. The team was without Josef Martinez for virtually the whole season. That’s an MVP talent that the team can’t replace. To put it bluntly, Adam Jahn isn’t Josef Martinez. I actually feel kind of bad for Jahn because he was attempting to fill shoes that were impossible to fill. I think he would’ve been an excellent backup option to add something different, but he wasn’t good enough to be a starting-caliber striker.

Add onto that the injury to Ezequiel Barco and the selling of Pity Martinez, so for the majority of games last season, the team was playing without a single Designated Player (DP) on the field. That is not a winning recipe, no matter how good your supporting cast is. MLS is a DP-driven league, and the fact of the matter is if you don’t have any DP’s, you’re going to find it hard to be successful. 

That being said, at the end of the season, Atlanta United somehow still had a very realistic chance to make the playoffs. But, even when DP’s started to come back, the team continued to underperform. 

Going into the new season, there’s hope of an Atlanta United team fans can love. The team has brought in new coach, Gabriel Heinze, who many expect to play a more pressing and attacking style of play more similar to old coach Tata Martino than to Frank De Boer and Stephen Glass. Add onto that the return of “The King” and former MVP Josef Martinez, and there’s more than enough reason to get excited about this team.

The questions on many people’s minds are who will start and what formations will be used by Heinze after all of the ins and outs this offseason. Certain positions have a plethora of options and others that don’t, and I wouldn’t be surprised if players are added in those positions before games start. Many expect the team to start the season out in a 4-3-3 formation. This is how that might look.

Now there’s a lot of complicated things when creating a lineup like this. One being there are tons of players that are capable of playing multiple positions. So, I picked the players’ most likely position and stuck them there for the time being. Or for other formations I go into later in this article, I put them where there’s an open spot because I know they’ll be a part of the team no matter the position.

Starting with the defense, Brad Guzan isn’t the best goalie anymore, but he is still pretty good in the position. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was his last year and if he was ousted by either Kann or a younger goalie by the end of the season. Last year he made a lot of mistakes but also made a lot of spectacular saves. If it starts to be more mistakes than saves, he could be out of the starting lineup quicker than one might expect.

Now for the center backs. This is by far the weakest position on the team at this point. It seemed to be a little better with the rumored signing of Lautaro Gianetti from Velez, but now that deal is rumored to have fallen through due to a failed medical. Because of this, the only clear starting-caliber center back on the roster is Miles Robinson. As of right now, Anton Walkes is the singular real choice to pair with him. He played well in stints last season and is a capable backup, but I’m not so sure he’s the quality of player this team wants to be starting. After those two, there isn’t any depth past young talent. The third choice center back is unclear at the moment. In terms of age, you would probably go with 19-year-old George Campbell, who made one appearance last season. However, 16-year-old (Turns 17 March 4th) Efrain Morales is a very exciting talent who was just signed to a homegrown contract in 2020. He also trained with Manchester United at one point, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him break out and get more first-team minutes similar to what George Bello has done recently. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.

While the center back situation isn’t clear, one thing is. Atlanta United needs to assess the backline for the rest of the window. As we’ll see in the rest of this article, the other parts of the team are looking pretty solid.

When it comes to outside backs, left back is basically nailed on to be George Bello. I would be very surprised if anyone else plays a role other than giving Bello a rest at times. I also could see him be up there with a healthy Josef Martinez and Miles Robinson in playing almost every minute of every game. Right back is less clear. Especially with the departure of Franco Escobar, who was one of the team’s best players last season. I mean come on, he’s “Playoff Franco.” Brooks Lennon played a lot of right back, but he’s clearly more suited to a wing back role. I think Ronald Hernandez is a player that will come in right away and make the role his. I find it hard to believe the team loaned out Escobar without trusting Hernandez to take his place. If the center back position is filled with more depth, you could see Walkes at right back as well, and if Heinze wants to go more attacking, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see either Lennon or Jurgen Damm take up the position, as well.

Now to the midfield. The midfield is the part of the team with the most depth. The team lost Eric Remedi, Jeff Lawrentowicz, and Pity Martinez and replaced them with Santiago Sosa, Franco Ibarra, and Marcelino Moreno. That business definitely passes the eye test.

I believe Sosa will come in and start right away as the Remedi replacement. The hope is Sosa can recreate some of the magic Darlington Nagbe used to pull off in the middle of the park for Atlanta by connecting defense to attack. Moreno is probably the most surefire lock of those in the midfield to be a starter. After arriving from Lanus last season, he was one of the few bright spots for the team. The third midfielder is up for grabs with a couple of good options to choose from. The most likely in terms of fit is probably Emerson Hyndman. While he didn’t blow anyone away with his performances last year, he was capable of putting in a shift, and on his day, he was a pretty useful player to have on the field. Now if Franco Ibarra or Matheus Rossetto can prove to be a better option, it’s not like Hyndman is irreplaceable. I also think there’s a chance we haven’t seen anything close to what Rossetto brings to the table. There were glimpses of him being capable of being a big player for the team. He just doesn’t seem to have found himself in the team yet. There’s also a chance Barco slides back into a midfield role if someone like Erik Lopez becomes a must-start up front. Mo Adams could also play a part this year, as he proved to be a good fill-in when necessary with his play last season. And don’t forget about Tyler Wolff either. He’s another young talent looking to break through this season, and I won’t close the possibility that that breakout could be in the midfield. There’s a lot of depth in the middle of the park, however, which could make it difficult for him to break through without injuries. At the end of the day, the midfield looks like a strong point for Heize’s side.

Up top, there’s a pretty clear starting two in my opinion. If Josef Martinez is healthy, he’ll virtually start every game. He’s a lock—no need to talk about him. I also think Ezequiel Barco is all but a lock at this point. I personally think this will be a breakout year for Barco. His time at Atlanta has been a little underwhelming due to injuries, things off the field, and not necessarily fitting in with coaching game plans. The talent is undoubtedly there, and there’s a ton of it. He plays for Argentina’s youth teams for a reason. I think Heinze will get the best out of him, and I expect him to be the talent everyone thought he was coming to Atlanta. He could easily move to Europe for around $15-$30 million, as has already been rumored with him. The third forward isn’t necessarily a lock. I liked a lot of what Damm did last year, and he could work really well with Josef Martinez up top instead of Jahn. However, the excitement behind Erik Lopez is definitely there. He’s everything you’d expect from a talented but unproven young player. Signs point to him possibly working his way into a starting role this season. 

After those players, there’s a good amount of depth for the team up front. A lot of that depth has unknowns that come with it. Lisandro Lopez has come in from Racing Club and is now 38 years old. He should be a good veteran presence, but how much he will play is unclear. Similarly, Erick “Cubo” Torres is back with the team after a mediocre year, to put it best. He also is similarly a good veteran presence without a clear number of minutes that he will get. Then you have the young, homegrown Jackson Conway. He has been popping in goals for fun at the USL level with Atlanta United 2 and scored in his lone appearance for Atlanta United in the CONCACAF Champions League against Club America this December. He brings a lot of potential but is very young. The question has always been who can be Josef’s backup, and there are a lot of options this year to fill that role.

The depth in wide positions is kind of similar. We already talked about Erik Lopez and his possible involvement out wide. Other options are Jake Mulraney and Machop Chol. It is unclear if Mulraney is still going to be at the club after underwhelming last year. He could be a pretty decent backup option if he finds his footing, though. Chol is an exciting option that many people might not know. He played for Atlanta United youth teams when he was younger and then played four impressive years at an always highly-ranked Wake Forest team. He’s a winger that is smooth on the ball and loves taking on defenders in one-on-ones. He has loads of potential and could easily rise through the ranks and be that go-to option off the bench for Heinze to add spark to games. Overall the starting three will be very good, and there are some decent depth options as well. There are also some players that are in defense and midfield on my lineup that could fill roles in the attack.

For me, the 4-3-3 makes the most sense given Heinze’s style of play and the players at his disposal, and the team he can put out in it is pretty exciting. The excitement might be hindered if the team can’t find some reliable center backs to go along with who they have already. 

While a 4-3-3 is what I expect the team to use, Heinze does have some history using a 3-4-3 formation. This is what that could look like.

As of right now, this basically seems out of the question. It would force the team to play one more player in their weakest position of center back and play one less in one of their stronger positions, that being the midfield. Add onto that how the team looked questionable when using this formation under De Boer, and I don’t see this formation being used too much in the early days. If a game calls for it tactically, or the team finds another center back or two, then sure. Why not? But for now, I just don’t think it’s the best team Heinze can put on the field.

Another option could be the 3-5-2. That could look like this.

While I do like this better than the 3-4-3 since it gives Heinze the ability to play three center midfielders instead of two, I still don’t think the personnel is better than those that would be put out and make sense in a 4-3-3. 

Either way, I think Heinze will most likely go with a 4-3-3 to start the season. I also expect Darren Eales and company to get their hands on one or two new center backs.

With new center backs or not, there’s at least hope that the team has a manager in Heinze that will play more exciting football fans can get behind. And with the players he has at his fingertips, this could be a special team and a special year for Atlanta United.

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