ATLANTA — There was a Josef Martinez-shaped void in Atlanta United’s team Saturday, but Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco did their best to make sure the 69,000-plus at Mercedes-Benz Stadium went home just as happy as usual.
Playing without the Venezuelan striker who has averaged more than 30 goals across his last two seasons, the Argentine duo combined to create the goals that secured Atlanta three points in their home opener.
Yet despite the win and continued offensive uptick from both men in Josef Martinez's absence, the message coming out of the home locker room was that the unit as a whole can — and must — improve.
“I think we could do better, but still we are just on our way,” said Frank de Boer after the win. “I think we had four new players who started the last game against Toronto [in the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs]. Everybody has to feel his position and also with his teammates, and that takes time.”
Despite so many new faces, including a recent graduate from Atlanta United 2 in Laurence Wyke, 18-year old homegrown player George Campbell, and Brazilian summer signing Matheus Rossetto, the game was stamped by Atlanta’s relative veterans.
“You cannot replace Josef so other players have to step in,” said De Boer. “Already two times in a row, Emerson Hyndman and Ezequiel Barco did a good job to step in and replace those goals. So that's positive, and I also think Pity played really well. ... I think overall the team did a great effort. I know we can play much better, but it starts first with working very hard.”
Hyndman joked with reporters when cameras were off that he’s hoping to go “three-for-three” in front of goal against Club America on Wednesday after scoring in back-to-back games. Like De Boer, he admitted it’s a work in progress, and that Atlanta will likely have a different look to them without their main goal scorer.
“Obviously he's just a massive presence with the goals he scores for us. He can kind of create one by himself sometimes,” Hyndman said of Josef Martinez. “I think obviously we still have a really good attacking team with Pity, Barco and since Adam [Jahn] has come into the team, he's done really well. I think we'll obviously have to do it a little bit of a different way — a little bit more buildup, maybe not as direct — but at the same time it's something we can build on and get better at.”
De Boer admitted that Cincinnati’s defensive block did not make it easy on his team, but added that Barco’s unselfish runs were crucial in helping his team create space to exploit. And his team’s ability to manipulate the opposition’s shape is something he expects will improve over time.
“We had some moments, for example, the great pass when we could find Pity and then directly to Barco one-against-one in the first half. That is what you're looking for, but it's so rare when you find those spaces,” said De Boer. “I don't say we have to be more patient, but the tempo can be better from left to right and try to pull them more to the sides, then suddenly that one splitting pass in between.”
Early returns may not be perfect, but production is undoubtedly up for Atlanta’s Argentine Designated Players. Martinez went until May before recording his first assist last season. Barco is already roughly halfway to his entire production from a 2019 campaign interrupted by international call-ups and injuries.
As far as the big picture, with Atlanta earning six points through two games as opposed to only one the team had at this point last season, De Boer isn't complaining.
“That’s a bit different, and it’s positive,” De Boer said. “But we have to improve, that’s for sure.”