Soccer Down Here
Five Names to Watch Sunday for Atlanta United
by Jarrett Smith
The birds are gone, the sunlight is fading as soon as it shows up and the smell of wood fire compliments the wet, cold weather as residents try to use the memory of UGA football to keep themselves warm until the Spring.
Winter is not all bad though. Atlanta United is back in training in the cold and there is a buzz of excitement around the club with Manager Gonzalo Pineda entering his first full season with the club. While there are plenty of moves in and out of the club that need to be sorted before the dust settles, some names might not be headliners in the eyes of the people but deserve a quick glance. Let us take a look at who you might want to keep an eye on Sunday, when not focusing on the stars, of course.
Atlanta’s first round pick was active in the first preseason friendly against the Georgia Storm. Centeno played on the left side against the NPSL side and showed well in the first 30 minute segment. Like many of the players on this list, he has been presented with the unenviable task of showing out in limited activity of preseason to show he belongs in the conversation for activity with a first team that is pretty damn deep. And like other previous draft picks, he will most likely see himself playing wherever he is needed as he tries to find his niche (see Gallagher, Jon for a strong example of this.) Centeno is a very technical player — put a dollar in the swear jar every time you see this sentence fragment — who could realistically spend a lot of time with the second team as he gets up to speed. Remember, the speed jump from college to MLS is not to be underestimated.
Mertz came to Atlanta United 2 with the intention of getting a shot with the MLS club and, in my opinion, he is near the top of that list of ‘players who are on a 2nd team deal but are at the top of the list to move to the first team if it was needed’. Mertz is a smaller attacking midfielder who formed a downright evil triumvirate with Chris Allen and Will Reilly last year for the 2s. His defining characteristic last year was the ability to make those around him better. The first preseason game featured him seeing 30 minutes of game time but the flow of the game did not find him on the ball as much as he may have wanted. Mertz will surely want to show out as much as he can Sunday. That said, Mertz is one of those players where goals and assists aren’t the only way to judge his game. Look for the unselfish runs and hockey assists if he is on his game.
Matheus started slow in 2021 but came on strong for the second team and was one of the team’s creative forces later on. The young midfielder plays with a flair and consistency is one of the things he’s looking for in 2022. He has shown brilliant creativity at times, including a clever lift pass that almost led to a Mikey Ambrose in Atlanta’s first preseason matchup with the Georgia Storm. Matheus, like Mertz, will be trying to force his way into the conversation in a deep part of the roster and will want to raise eyebrows as often as possible. That could lead to moments of frustration or moments of brilliance. Or both.
Gutman’s wandering path through MLS finally looks like it will involve wearing a Five Stripes kit. After starting in Cincinnati, coming to Atlanta only to be loaned to Red Bulls, Gutman is in Atlanta with the role of ‘backup to George Bello’ ready for him if he wants to grab it. There are similarities to what he’s done during his time with Red Bulls but it boils down to this: He will still be doing pressing work at times but in Atlanta he’s going to be playing with the ball more than he did in New York. Gutman looked solid in the role in Tuesday’s matchup with the Storm, but his progression will be important to watch over the remaining preseason. As we’ve seen in the past, those depth pieces can be vital during the dog days of summer in MLS and Gutman showing that he can combine well down the left would be awesome to see.
Showunmi was the last draft pick for Atlanta United in the 2022 Super Draft (actually a pick that was acquired from trading Will Vint to Colorado a long time ago in the dark days of 2020.) Showunmi led University of New Hampshire in scoring last year with 10 goals during the program’s best season to date. He iis a large human – listed at 6’3” in your programs – but is smoother with his feet than you might expect, as his performance in the matchup Tuesday showed. If you’re new to how the MLS Superdraft works, third round picks do not hang around very often. Showunmi may not stick on the first team but these will be important minutes for him to see if he can earn a spot with the second team, especially with the departure of Mackey Diop and Jackson Conway in line to get first team minutes as the understudy to Josef Martinez. Look for his physicality if he gets on the field, but don’t undersell his technical ability. (Photos by Matthew Dingle, @Nomadic_Lens_, Georgia Storm)