Michael Parkhurst of Atlanta United FC challenges Christian Ramirez of Minnesota United FC for the ball during the first half of the match on March 12, 2017 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by )
Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Atlanta United vs. Minnesota: Five things to consider

The Five Stripes are 1-1 in the preseason with a win at Nashville SC, a first-year USL team, and a 3-1 loss to Columbus in its first game in Charleston on Feb. 17.

The teams split their two meetings last season. While Atlanta United has been busy in the offseason with the additions of Ezequiel Barco and Darlington Nagbe, among others, the Loons have been relatively quiet. The team did add former Atlanta United players Tyrone Mears and Harrison Heath.

Here are five things to consider:

1. One goal. That’s the sum total in two games scored by Atlanta United with striker Josef Martinez, and attacking midfielder Miguel Almiron on the field at the same time. That goal came in the final seconds of Saturday’s 3-1 loss to Columbus and was the result of a mistake by the Crew.

Should Atlanta United supporters be worried?

Probably not. Nothing can be taken from the Nashville game regarding the offense because the weather conditions made enlightening work impossible.

Atlanta United dominated possession against Columbus, but the Crew did a very good job keeping its lines tight and eliminating the pockets of space that Martinez and Almiron thrive in exploiting. However, the team was just a fraction off on several through passes that would have split the Crew’s lines and put Martinez, Almiron, Barco or Julian Gressel on goal.

2. Barco’s progress. Barco was the subject of a few critical tweets following Saturday’s result. It was almost comical considering that when the team was on offense he did several good things. It was his crosses that did cause Columbus trouble. It was his dribbling ability that created space on the left side. He’s been training with Atlanta United less than three weeks. It’s easy to remember his $15 million price tag and assume that he’s going to step onto the pitch and dribble through everyone like Pele in the movie “Victory.”

If he starts, and it seems likely, watch to see if his passes are a little more accurate than they were on Saturday.

His confidence will likely increase and more good work should happen.

3. The defense. Atlanta United had a tendency to switch off for a minute or two in games last season, particularly after it scored. That lapse sometimes resulted in giving away goals too easily. 

Nashville’s goal in the opener and two of Columbus’ goals on Saturday were similar to some of those conceded last season.

Martino explained the mistakes on the Crew’s first two goals . On the first, scored by Pedro Santos, no one stepped up in time to pressure Federico Higuan near the top of the penalty box. An excellent passer, he took advantage of the time and space. On the second, a lapse in concentration regarding defensive responsibilities allowed a pass to split the lines of the midfield and defense and put Cristian Martinez into an open field, where he chipped Brad Guzan from 40 yards away.

If the MLS Cup is the goal, as the players and management have said, working on eliminating those lapses on Wednesday and on Saturday in the tournament’s final game is crucial.

4. Return of several players. It seems likely that right midfielder Hector Villalba and right fullback Franco Escobar may see their first minutes with the team against Minnesota United.

Villalba was sidelined early in training camp with a strained abductor. He scored 13 goals and notched 11 assists in 34 appearances last season. 

Escobar, 22 was acquired in the offseason from Newell’s Old Boys, the club Martino played for and later managed. Escobar is tall and fast. It will be interesting to see how he combines with Villalba, should they play together.

5. How much will the reserves play? Martino could go one of two ways with the starting lineup on Wednesday. He could play the presumed starters to continue to prepare them for the March 3 opener against Houston. 

Or, because they played on Feb. 17 and there is one more game on Saturday, he could start the reserves on Wednesday and save the starters to go against the Battery.

Martino used most of the starters in the second game of last year’s tournament in Charleston, which resulted in a 4-2 win against Seattle.

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