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Atlanta United vs. Seattle Sounders: What we learned

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Thing #4: AUFC is fun.

Atlanta United vs. Seattle Sounders, Feb. 22, 2017

Atlanta Going Vertical

Atlanta United looked different from the get-go tonight, as was evident by two goals scored in the first four minutes of the game. But the goals are merely a byproduct of the change in approach from the Atlanta attack, which was spearheaded by Josef Martinez leading the line as the lone striker. Martinez, despite maybe not being the fastest player on the team, is probably one of the speediest players in the league. But he also has strength and balance, which makes him a handful to deal with when running into space. He can go shoulder-to-shoulder with CBs and edge his way in front of them with his quick feet and low center of gravity. Basically, he’s everything Kenwyne Jones is not.

The physical threat of Martinez up front gave Atlanta a more vertical attack. Instead of passing the ball side to side around the back, Atlanta had a dangerous gameplan centered around playing the ball forward and direct. It was incredibly effective for Tata Martino’s side, which secured a four-goal early in the second half. But Martinez wasn’t the only reason the system flourished tonight.

Julian Gressel is a baller

Julian Gressel, for me, has been the biggest surprise of this team so far this preseason. He’d put in good shifts in each of his preseason appearances prior to Wednesday’s game and didn’t disappoint when Martino gave him a shot in the starting XI. Gressel is a bit of an enigma as a rookie, but what he’s shown with the team so far is this -- he’s a smart and versatile player with composure on the ball and a good idea of where his teammates are. He’s also physically mature and has great strength and body positioning. Most importantly though, he seems to have a good relationship with Tito Villalba, Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez. Those four created constant havoc in Seattle’s box for most of the first half.

Aside from his natural ability, Gressel’s inclusion in the team provided an extra dimension to Atlanta’s attack that Chris McCann cannot contribute. McCann played farther forward than your typical defensive midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 in the first two games, but wasn’t able to provide a threat with his positioning. He’s just not that type of player. Gressel was able to take advantage of it, and it gave Atlanta a whole new dynamism as he dovetailed with Almiron. Julian Gressel will be an important player for Atlanta this year, and despite his (unwarranted) red card in the game, he has yet to disappoint this preseason.

Kenwyne Jones is probably best as a super sub

Okay, this might not be something “we learned,” but I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking this was the most effective Atlanta has looked this preseason, despite our starters playing against what was essentially a reserve side from Seattle. As I mentioned earlier in the piece, I credit Martinez and his dynamic skill set as a major reason for this success. So if Martinez is playing at striker, the begging question is what to do with Kenwyne Jones. If you try to play a 4-4-2, you’re really manipulating your shape for the sole reason of including an out-of-form player, so that’s not really an option. The best role for Jones, I think, will be as a late game sub where Martino can control his minutes and have him on the field for critical late-game set pieces. And by the way, just because Jones is coming off the bench doesn’t mean he can’t be effective and contribute. If nothing else, he presents a completely different challenge for defenders than Martinez. I’m interested to hear what our community thinks of the Jones situation... who you got?