Preseason has finally arrived. Even though Atlanta United had the shortest offseason of any of the MLS clubs, it still felt like an eternity since the champagne flowed and the parade paraded. We’re about five weeks away from meaningful games when the Concacaf Champions League knockout rounds kick off.
Last year around this time, we picked five different players who needed to have a good preseason to improve their standing in the team. This time around, the competition for minutes just honestly isn’t as fierce. Atlanta United is an established championship team with little roster turnover. Despite a new manager coming in, you’re very likely to see the majority of the same looks personnel wise.
That doesn’t mean that there can’t be players to help themselves with a strong preseason. This time around, we’re only singling out three players who need to have a good showing heading into the games that count.
What an interesting two years it’s been for the Five Stripes’ first-ever designated player. Two Goal of the Year awards, quite a few highlight reel moments, one iconic series-defining goal, and yet somehow Tito has been on the outside of the lineup looking in more often than not. While his super sub abilities were crucial in the team’s cup run, you can bet that he won’t be content as a rotational player.
Unfortunately for him, the club’s biggest and most expensive project appears to be his main competition for minutes this season. Ezequiel Barco’s $15 million price tag has been much talked about. Common sense tells us that the club will do everything in their power to give him the chance to live up to his potential. With the attacking star power Frank de Boer has to choose from, it very well could come down to Barco and Villalba for the bulking of the playing time.
Tito has a chance to impress the new manager and earn more than just substitute minutes with a good preseason.
The biggest move so far this offseason was the trading away of Greg Garza to FC Cincinnati. As soon as the move was announced, fans speculated that it was because the emerging George Bello was too good to keep down on the depth chart any longer. While Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra acknowledged that Bello waiting in the wings was part of the decision, it’s up to the highly-touted prospect to prove he’s worth all the praise and expectations.
The left back job seems to be wide open for the taking. Free Agent signing Brek Shea seems to be the soon-to-be 17-year-old’s biggest competition, with perennial back-up Mikey Ambrose having a chance as well. Bello has a great chance to put his claim on the starting spot with a good showing in preseason training and matches. De Boer was hired partly for his vision for youth development. There’s no better case study of that vision on the roster right now than George Bello.
Guess who’s back? Our one repeat member of this list from last year is Andrew Carleton. In last year’s list we hoped that 2018 would be “The Year of Carleton” and well ... yikes. It certainly was not that. He did earn two starting nods and a handful of substitute appearances, but really it wasn’t what anyone was hoping for. He didn’t see much of the field and his season ended in being punished and left out of what should’ve been a monumental moment in his young career.
A new season brings a new manager and new hope. All of the hype has pretty much died. His place on the upcoming U-20 World Cup team seems like it’s devolved from a near certainty to a pipe dream. A strong preseason could go a long way in reviving both. It’s up to him to improve both on and off the field and prove he wants to be a professional soccer player in reality instead of in theory.
Will Carleton become the next in the long line of hyped up Americans to fall by the wayside or will he learn from a really rough year and turn it around? This season will go a long way in answering that question one way or the other.