Atlanta United (finally!) returns to MLS action this coming weekend against Philadelphia, where manager Gabriel Heinze has several key decisions to make in what will be a new-look starting XI after losing two of his key players.
Last week, the team lost one of its most ever-present midfielders in Emerson Hyndman to a torn ACL — undoubtedly a huge loss that will require some long-term tactical rethinking. But in the short term, Heinze will be without star striker Josef Martinez, whose importance is obvious. Martinez (who has tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days despite having completed his vaccination in mid-April) will miss at least three Atlanta United games while away at the Copa America in Brazil with the Venezuelan national team. It’s likely he’ll miss at least four games and potentially five, all depending on how far Venezuela advances and the player’s general fitness level after so much traveling.
The loss of Martinez means we’re sure to see something new as Heinze’s previously preferred understudy, Lisandro Lopez, parted with the team by mutual consent after a family tragedy. Here we’ll look at some of the options available to the Argentine manager during what will be a busy few weeks when the season resumes.
I know what you’re thinking and I don’t disagree. While Atlanta was surely hoping to catch some of the magic that Torres showed in flashes in his younger days, he doesn’t seem physically or technically capable of performing to a high standard at this level, particularly for a long period of time in a given match. First, mobility seems to be a clear issue for Torres, and it’s hard to imagine Atlanta able to execute any sort of consistent press with a player up top incapable of applying pressure. But while Lisandro Lopez wasn’t dissimilar in this respect, at least Licha was able to do some of the important things in possession that the team needed — hold up play, dropping into midfield as a playmaker, etc. Unfortunately, Torres hasn’t seemed to cause opposing defenders much trouble even when he’s on the ball. It’s not the option I’d go with, but it is an option. And based on Heinze’s past decisions this season to use Torres so frequently, Cubo may be the leading contender. I know.
[Insert Drake meme] The young Paraguayan forward has steadily grown into better and better form as the season has worn on, and his youthful energy and spirit is probably the best option for Heinze. While Lopez has trained and played primarily as a winger/wide forward so far this season, he has experience as a striker in his past at the youth international level. The biggest question mark is whether he’d be physically overpowered by MLS center backs. While that may happen from time to time, surely Lopez’s mobility and willingness to run into the box will supersede any of his weaknesses, and the team can play to his strengths. Meanwhile, Lopez will have had several weeks of training to prepare for the role and receive instruction from his manager on what he wants.
This option is more of a tactical idea than a player option, but it’s a direction Heinze could very well turn. With Jurgen Damm returning to health after his hamstring strain, there is more depth in the wing positions where players like Erik Lopez, Ezequiel Barco and Marcelino Moreno have all featured at time this season that could allow them to be used in this role. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of Barco here. This season, he’s been very sharp to recognize counterpressing opportunities, a trait that would serve a center forward well in Heinze’s system. He’s also not completely unfamiliar with such a role, as Frank de Boer used him as a striker at times in 2019 and 2020 when Josef Martinez was unavailable (though usually paired with Pity Martinez). In this role, Barco would still be able to do the things he prefers — receiving the ball to feet at the edge of the box and playing incisive passes — and Atlanta has willing runners in positions around him that could make this work. The role is not dissimilar to the way Lisandro Lopez played earlier this season, and a younger, fitter Barco could be even more effective. Or, Matheus Rossetto (that’s for Rob Usry).
LEST WE FORGET CONWAY SCORED IN THE ONLY GAME HE’S PLAYED IN—excuse me.
But for real, I’m dying to see Conway get some minutes. It’s killing me that a player with his potential is not seeing competitive action right now as one of those “tweeners” who is good enough to be included in all the first team squads instead of with Atlanta United 2, but not so much to actually enter the games. Realistically, Conway is not going to just jump in and make his MLS debut as a starter. I know that. But the burden of filling Josef’s shoes until he returns is not going to fall on just one player, so it’s a great opportunity to use Conway as an impact sub. At 19 years old, Conway is a young player — younger than Erik Lopez even — but Heinze has shown that he’s willing to give young players minutes if he trusts them, and this is a great opportunity for Conway to prove just that.