MARIETTA, Ga.—Last Saturday, Atlanta United fans got a small taste of an incredibly tantalizing prospect — all of the club's vaunted attacking players on the field at the same time.
Even dating back to last season, when Yamil Asad (now with D.C. United) slotted in Ezequiel Barco's current spot on the wing, it hasn’t happened that often. Josef Martinez missed several months last season with quadriceps and foot injuries prior to the 2017 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target. Afterward, shortly after moving into the shiny new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Miguel Almiron pulled a hamstring and was out for the rest of the regular season, save for one substitute appearance in the finale against Toronto. Hector "Tito" Villalba was the only one to play -- let alone start -- in all 34 matches.
This week, when the Five Stripes take on Chicago (8:30 pm ET | TSN – Full TV & Streaming Info), we could finally see Atlanta United’s 2018 "fearsome foursome" in the starting lineup.
Week 9's second half against the Montreal Impact offered the first sight of Almiron, Martinez, Villalba and Barco on the field simultaneously. Early signs looked promising, but Tata Martino’s arsenal of attacking players presents what could be described as a “champagne problem.” After all, Martino’s team is in the best form of the league, having not lost since its first game of the season away to Houston.
“When you’re playing well, it’s tough to make too many changes other than what’s really necessary,” Martino told media through a translator Thursday. “The team is in good form lately, so we’ll just have to see who’s playing well [in training].”
This year’s Atlanta United differs quite drastically from last season’s team in the midfield, with the insertion of Darlington Nagbe for erstwhile, defensive-minded central mid Carlos Carmona. Nagbe, a player much more adept at playmaking and carrying the ball from defense to attack, does not present the same physicality and steel.
Can they all fit in the team while retaining defensive solidity?
“We know what we have to do is put the most balanced team we can on the field," Martino said. "So even though we have a lot of great attacking players, we’re not going to play with 10 attackers. But, for example, in the last game against Montreal, we had Tito come off the bench at halftime because we needed it. But we just try to make the team as balanced as possible.”
With Villalba back fit — a player Martino values greatly with his combination of pace and finishing ability — it’s hard to see the Argentine manager keeping his compatriot out of the starting lineup for too long. Martino hopes that Villalba can regain form quickly as he returns from a pesky injury that has bothered him since preseason.
“[Tito] can contribute everything that he contributed all of last season. He’s continued to do well this season, but it was unfortunate that he suffered an injury and he had to come off the bench against Montreal. But we expect the same from him and he’s an important player for us,” said Martino.