When nearly 70,000 fans gather at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for Atlanta United’s MLS home opener, much will have changed. Faces that supporters of the club came to know over the past few years will be gone, replaced by new ones that hope to help Atlanta recapture its spot as the class of the league. But when the players exit the bus, visit outside of the stadium and sign the Golden Spike as is tradition before every home match, the one player that’s always bringing up the rear will be the most notable absence.
There’s absolutely no question that Atlanta United isn’t where it is right now without Josef Martinez: the ruthless, mercurial striker that captured the imagination of not just his home fans, but the entire league basically from his first match on American soil in 2017. Yet, in one brief moment on February 29, the season for Atlanta turned upside down—and the questions shifted from the amount of goals he’d score in 2020 to if he’d ever play again in 2020. While the latter question seems to suggest that 69 minutes was all that Josef is set to play this year, there’s much bigger ones at play, starting with Saturday against FC Cincinnati.
An offseason of turmoil
It wasn’t the best of offseasons for FCC, to say the least. In February, head coach Ron Jans resigned after a report from the locker room alleged that he had used a racial slur. Jans had said that he was quoting a song and didn’t know the meaning of the word, but his lack of self-awareness appeared to be one of several episodes surrounding him and race, including an incident in October when he was alleged to have made remarks about slavery that rubbed some members of the team the wrong way. Jans’ ouster means that Joann Damet—the interim head coach after USL holdover Alan Koch was fired in May after picking up just 1 of a possible 21 points in a 7-match stretch after staring the season 2-1-1—will be in the technical area once more. Add to that the fact that striker Darren Mattocks is facing 2 felony charges after allegedly committing an insurance fraud in Pennsylvania in January, and things have been, well, less than great in the Queen City ahead of Year 2 of MLS.
But it wasn’t all bad. The team looked to shore up its midfield by selecting MLS veteran and former Philadelphia Union man Haris Medunjanin, while it also added Siem de Jong, a mainstay in Frank de Boer’s lineup at Ajax, on a free transfer. Former Dutch youth international Jürgen Locadia, who shipped from PSV to Brighton in a nearly $20 million move, was picked up on loan and looks to add a boost to an offense that scored a league-worst 31 goals last year, as will ex-Japanese international Yuya Kubo, a former teammate of Josef Martinez at Swiss club Young Boys.
Two familiar names to Atlanta United fans, of course, will be in Cincy’s lineup: Greg Garza and Brandon Vazquez, as will MLS vet Kendall Waston.
Holes in the backline
One other injury that slipped through the cracks a little was Franco Escobar. The good news is that Escobar’s condition is not nearly as dire: Frank de Boer called it a “dead leg” in training this week, and while the Argentinian won’t play, that suggests that he should be good to go as early as this week when the club heads to Club América to start its Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal tie. Miles Robinson, while starting to run in training once more, won’t play on Saturday either, and neither will Edgar Castillo (rib).
That opens up some possibilities for a few youngsters in Luiz Fernando and Laurence Wyke. With Escobar’s injury, Wyke filled in during the 2nd half against Nashville SC and did well, eventually being upgraded to a full 1st-team contract this week. Fernando, who impressed in a brief spell against Motagua in the first round of CCL, figures to play a much bigger role on Saturday; our own Santiago Lopez has him starting at LB.
So who replaces Josef?
With the team carrying only one striker in Adam Jahn, it looks like Atlanta United inched toward a contingency plan as it signed forward JJ Williams to a first-team contract. Williams is no stranger to MLS: he played 7 matches with the Columbus Crew in 2019 while spending most of his time on loan in the USL Championship with the Birmingham Legion, where he scored 7 times in 21 appearances. Outside of that, rumors have tied Villareal man and Colombian international Carlos Bacca to the Five Stripes; that looks like smoke and not a great deal of fire at this point; however, according to The Athletic’s Sam Stejskal, there’s at least one more name to come. Is it Bacca? Is it someone else? That will likely come into focus sooner rather than later.
From a tactical standpoint, the consensus seems to point toward playing Ezequiel Barco on the right wing and putting Pity Martinez in as a false 9, having him play deeper in the midfield and open up opportunites for Barco to cut inside from wide areas. When Matheus Rossetto and Manuel Castro are deemed ready to play, we’ll definitely see an evolution in the forward areas as one or both work to get themselves in the lineup.
How well things work on Saturday might guide Atlanta further along as it looks to fill the huge void up top, but regardless the direction it goes in, it will take a lot of getting used to not seeing Josef Martinez there for the forseeable future. Atlanta United 1-0 FC Cincinnati