Atlanta United’s preseason schedule wrapped up with a whimper Tuesday night as the Five Stripes lost in penalties following a scoreless 90 minutes to Mexican second-division club Leones Negros in Guadalajara.
Atlanta finished their five-match preseason campaign with three wins and two losses. But preseason isn’t about the records, it’s about what we learned watching the team perform. Here are three takeaways from Atlanta United’s 2020 preseason.
Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco look sharp
All was not well with Pity Martinez in Atlanta at certain points last season, particularly toward the end of the year when Frank de Boer opted to remove the Argentine superstar from the starting lineup on Decision Day presented by AT&T and in Round One of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs — both against the New England Revolution. But Pity came back with strong performances against the Philadelphia Union and, in a losing effort, to Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference Final.
“To see how Pity played today, this is how you want your No. 10 players to play,” De Boer said after last year’s season-ending loss. “Very disciplined… but then when we had the ball he was too fast for [Michael] Bradley. This is what you want to see from your players.”
And for the most part, that’s what De Boer has seen from Pity this preseason. He appears fitter and sharper than this time last season, which makes sense. He played with River Plate into December before joining Atlanta United just a few weeks later.
Ezequiel Barco is a slightly different story as his performances for Atlanta United were rarely in question last season. The only doubt surrounding him was whether he’d be available to play in a given game. Barco missed significant periods of time playing in the U-20 World Cup for Argentina and recuperating from a nagging knee injury sustained in a U.S. Open Cup match on a waterlogged pitch in Columbus. He has a big point to prove to try to earn a transfer to Europe in his third season in MLS.
New faces, similar problems for De Boer
De Boer was thrown into the fire upon his appointment as Atlanta United manager last season, and his unfamiliarity with the strengths of his squad caused growing pains with poor results to start the 2019 MLS campaign. This year, the script is flipped. De Boer is well adjusted to the league, but the introduction of many new players — particularly some added late in the preseason —could cause similar teething issues.
Fernando Meza, the replacement for the departed Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, was signed two days before the start of camp, but others like Matheus Rossetto, Anton Walkes, and Manuel Castro only joined training with the team in the last 10 days. Combine those recent acquisitions with the likes of other transfer window signings like Brooks Lennon, Edgar Castillo, Jake Mulraney and Adam Jahn means this team might require another “settling in” period to start the season.
Considering the losses of Darlington Nagbe, Gonzalez Pirez, Julian Gressel, Justin Meram and Florentin Pogba — all of whom logged more than 1,000 first team minutes last year — most of the new signings will be leaned-upon early and often this season.
ATLUTD in 2020: A referendum on De Boer and Carlos Bocanegra
Atlanta United found success building its initial roster in 2017 from scratch thanks to some shrewd signings and salary cap navigation by Paul McDonough, now the Inter Miami CF sporting director. That initial roster was so well-built it gave the club a platform for success through the duration of many of the initial contracts players signed in those early years.
Now, several of those players are now gone, evidence that Bocanegra is now responsible for flying the plane with both hands clasped on the yoke.
Continuing the analogy, De Boer is certainly in the cockpit with him. The team’s patterns of play in attack are looking more and more noticeably different from Tata Martino’s tactics predicated on pace and width. So far this preseason, Atlanta United are playing more intricately through the middle of the park, with the trio of Barco, Pity and Josef Martinez free to move centrally together and combine with tight, quick 1-2 passing moves.
The new personnel and refreshed tactical approach is certain to look different as the players take to the pitch at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2020. Despite all the growing pains and gripes some fans had with De Boer last season, it’s easy to forget the team was a Nick DeLeon wondergoal and Josef Martinez penalty miss away from hosting its second consecutive MLS Cup. This year’s team will prove if the club is moving in the right direction.