Atlanta and Birmingham: What to Watch For
by Jarrett Smith
Preseason has mercifully reached its finale. If this were an opera it would have been Wagnerian in length, with orchestra changeouts and everything. Alas, we are here though. Atlanta United and Birmingham Legion wrap up the preseason before the MLS season kicks off next weekend with Atlanta opening play against Sporting Kansas City.
Most of the roster is pretty much set. Think of this like your week 3 in the NFL preseason before the NFL got weird with their schedule and week 3 was sort of the dress-rehearsal. Expect to see the starters most of the way so they can stretch their legs out in a fast environment. Everything in preseason has been building up to week one and this will be no exception. You will most likely not see the young players who are more closely associated with Atlanta United 2 on the field, as they will have their own scrimmage to play in preparation for the USL season. So all that being said, what should we look for?
One More Last Chance
I have said again and again that I do not care about results in preseason. Winning or losing in these ramp-up situations are not nearly as important as building chemistry and creating chances. The finishing will come with repetition and with a Josef Martinez that should be closer to his pre-injury self, you just want to create danger and let the predator do predator things.
The danger creation is something to look for in Birmingham after some disappointment during the last few preseason matchups in Mexico. It was not a red flag by any means – Marcelino Moreno has been out while nursing an injury and Thiago Almada practically got off the plane and jumped on the field – but you would like to see them create a number of high quality looks against Birmingham. That would go a long way to relaxing nerves in the lead up to the season opener.
Luiz Araujo has been on the warpath this preseason and looks intent on kick-starting a reign of terror, but getting assistance from wing depth players as well as other midfield players such as Matheus Rossetto stepping into the attack and causing problems would be great to see.
Traffic Jam on the Connector
There is no secret that the Atlanta United midfield is congested and that is before you factor in Emerson Hyndman’s return from a torn ACL. While Hyndman may be worked into things slowly as he comes back – no two humans respond the same way to major surgery – there will be plenty of congestion in the midfield.
If we work backwards from the front line, you would most likely be penciling in Josef Martinez, Araujo and Almada leading the charge. After that you are looking at three in the midfield in this exercise. If he is healthy, Moreno is really difficult to keep out of the lineup. He will be near the top of the league in dribbles won and is capable of pulling apart a defense at will. That leaves two spots in this exercise and I invite you to build it however you want.
Santiago Sosa was a cult hero for chunks of 2021 and looks like he could be a serious problem going forward, both in the timeline and literally. Franco Ibarra has started to show more than just the ball winning defensive midfielder skills that earned him the move from Argentinos Juniors to Atlanta in the first place. Rossetto came on strong in the second half of 2021 after some up and down moments since his arrival. Amar Sejdic is a very useful depth piece if things get sideways and MLS Legend Osvaldo Alonso is not to be counted out until he hangs them up. Oh, also do not count out Tyler Wolff. The last four coaches who have spent time running the Five Stripes have thought highly enough of him to give him opportunities in league play and he has been a bright spot this preseason. That midfield will be a dogfight and this weekend will be the last time fans see how it functions before the real thing begins.
The Dom Before the Storm
Responses have been understandably mixed since Dom Dwyer signed a two-year deal with Atlanta United after a trial period with the team in Mexico. Dwyer is not the same player he was during his ascendance with Sporting Kansas City years ago but we will see if playing second fiddle to Josef Martinez is the right fit for him. He scored 13 goals in 2018 for Orlando City but struggled just like everyone else did during the James O’Connor era and missed the 2020 season after knee surgery. It is unknown how much he has left in the tank but at 31 years of age, a situation where his minutes are limited and he can match up with tired backlines might be what he needs. We know he can be a physical presence and is a known practitioner of the dark arts and a good 10 minute stretch Sunday might soften some unsure feelings.