Atlanta United (6-13-4 record in 2020, finished 12th in the Eastern Conference, failed to make playoffs)
Head coach: Gabriel Heinze
Lisandro Lopez, Santiago Sosa, Ronald Hernandez, Franco Ibarra, Alan Franco, Machop Chol, Mikey Ambrose
Jon Gallagher, Fernando Meza*, Eric Remedi, Franco Escobar*, Jeff Larentowicz
Projected starting XI
(4-3-3): Brad Guzan; George Bello, Miles Robinson, Alan Franco, Brooks Lennon; Santiago Sosa, Ezequiel Barco, Emerson Hyndman; Marcelino Moreno, Josef Martinez, Jürgen Damm
Given what we’ve seen in Atlanta’s first two competitive matches of the season, these players seem most likely to comprise the starting lineup. Anton Walkes started alongside Miles Robinson for the CONCACAF games, but Alan Franco is expected to play a considerable role in the team. To his credit, Walkes was pretty solid in the Champions League, but It’s early days in Heinze’s tenure. While the head coach continues to tinker with the tactics and his lineups, players will move in and out of the lineup while Heinze figures out how to get the best out of his team.
Based on Heinze’s first two games, it seems like the team’s shape itself will be pretty fluid. Already we've seen the fullbacks, George Bello and Brooks Lennon, finding numerous positions throughout the field, going both high up the field and wide to the touchlines but also finding space in the middle of the field. There were a few instances over the two games between Alajuelense and Atlanta when Franco Ibarra and Emerson Hyndman drifted in the fullback’s spot in the backline, creating space for the fullbacks to move inside and find space deeper in the opposition’s half. Then there’s Santiago Sosa, who adds another dynamic to Atlanta’s setup.
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Santiago Sosa, an exciting 21-year-old prospect from Argentine superclub River Plate, brings a solid, defensive presence to Atlanta’s midfield. Atlanta United needed a midfield revamp after the departure of Jeff Larentowicz and a generally poor (and boring) year from the group overall. In the first leg against Alajuelense, Heinze deployed Sosa as the deepest player in Atlanta’s shape, spraying passes and helping Miles Robinson and Walkes in the back line. In the second leg, he didn’t form a back three with the center backs the same way he did in the first leg, but he still provided defensive solidity deep in the midfield.
As Sosa continues to play, we’ll see how Heinze positions the Argentine. Former Atlanta United manager Tata Martino often deployed the now retired Larentowicz in a similar fashion when Martino had the team play in a back four. Sosa’s distribution and positional play should allow Atlanta to confidently build the attack out from the defense. Ideally, the attacking players will feel like the defensive set up behind them can provide adequate cover and opportunities to get forward. Sosa performed that role in Heinze’s system throughout the Round of 16 tie against Alajuelense — more so in the first leg than the second — and should be an integral part of Atlanta United’s setup in 2021.
Reasons to be worried about Atlanta United
Even though the front office has done virtually everything right since the MLS is Back Tournament, there have been a few hitches in the final weeks leading up to the start of the season. (That’s not to say the club is at fault, but it’s important to point out that Atlanta experienced numerous headaches in its search for a center back.)
Atlanta’s center back transfer saga seems to have worked out after the club signed Alan Franco, but he joined up with the team so late into preseason (and tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in Atlanta) that the Argentine center back could take a few weeks to get up to speed with the rest of the team.
It may be a while before Franco enters the lineup as a starter, but other than that, Atlanta shouldn’t have too many reasons to be worried heading into the 2021 season. It’s difficult to imagine this Atlanta United side stumbling to the depths of the MLS standings like last year, so there’s still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about 2021.
Why Atlanta United is worth watching
For all the completely understandable reasons that followers of Atlanta United may have checked out last season, this may be a season in which fans can’t look away. Everything about the team feels reinvigorated, from the coaching staff to the new and returning players. Atlanta United set a low bar after failing to reach the playoffs in a season in which 10 (!) teams from each conference qualified.
The 2021 season may not be an instant success from day one in terms of results, but it should be a highly entertaining product on the field. Josef Martinez is poised to make his Major League Soccer return, George Bello could have a breakout season under Heinze and Ezequiel Barco will be itching to show teams in Europe his quality.
Why shouldn’t you be excited? Even if the team doesn’t win any trophies, the Five Stripes have shown promising signs of what kind of soccer they want to play, and it looks pretty fun. Heinze’s desire to win and the way he views the game should translate to an entertaining and promising season for Atlanta United. Oh yeah, and there’s the whole thing about fans potentially returning to stadiums across the league.