Playing its first game of the season on a field that for one day after hours of rain seemed better suited for inspiring a country song than hosting soccer, Atlanta United defeated Nashville SC 3-1 on Saturday at First Tennessee Park.
A team that likes to connect passes, the Five Stripes had a few sequences of passes, but the wet field and Nashville’s pressing made it very difficult to play one-two combinations or hit passes into space for someone to run onto.
“The type of football that we like to play, the conditions didn’t help us, but I don’t think we were at our best in quality of the ball, our passes, our decision-making, that can all be sharper,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “That can be expected in our first preseason game.”
But the water also led to Atlanta United’s first goal when Josef Martinez jumped on a pass that was stopped by a puddle of water near the top of the penalty box. The goal was scored in the 58th minute, and Martinez celebrated with his usual stare into the crowd of 9,059.
Nashville SC tied the score in the 64th minute when Ropapa Mensah finished a beautiful counter-attack with a chip of Alec Kann. The pass was sent across the box by Alan Winn.
Atlanta United took a 2-1 lead on a goal by Brandon Vazquez in the 74th minute. Vazquez was put through on goal on a pass by Darlington Nagbe, who was one of several players, including Ezequiel Barco, who was making his Atlanta United debut. Both looked very sharp on offense.
“With Nagbe and Barco, we are able to do a few new things,” manager Gerardo Martino said. “We are able to combine very well. They are very dynamic players who add to our attack. They are very good in 1v1 situations.”
Romario Williams, making his Atlanta United debut after spending last season on loan with Charleston in the USL, gave Atlanta United a 3-1 lead with a one-timed shot off a poor clearance in the 78th minute.
Atlanta United’s preseason will continue in Charleston with games against Columbus on Feb. 17, Minnesota United on Feb. 21 and Charleston on Feb. 24. The season will start at Houston on March 3.
Here are five observations from the game.
1. First goal. Atlanta United broke through when Liam Doyle tried to pass back to the goalie. The pass was attempted where the water was deepest, just in front of the penalty box near the third-base line of the converted baseball stadium. A puddle stopped the ball. Martinez jumped on it for the easy shot from 16 yards. Martinez finished neatly into the lower right corner.
Though Atlanta United created a few chances before Martinez’s break through, only one came close to breaking the tie.
2. Barco’s debut. Barco was signed by Atlanta United from Independiente in Argentina for an MLS record $15 million.
He needed about 35 seconds to show a glimpse of his vision, dribbling ability and speed. Barco picked up a loose ball, blew past a defender and tried to play Martinez through on goal. The pass was hit too hard, which may have been a reflection of trying to figure out how to play on the soaked turf.
Barco was at it again in the seventh minute, cutting inside the fullback and chipping a right-footed pass for Julian Gressel to try to run onto.
Barco came close to opening the scoring in the 33rd minute when his left-footed shot rolled just past the far post. Barco was freed by a nice pass from Miguel Almiron.
Barco followed that with a pass that split the defense and sent Martinez into a one-on with goalkeeper Matt Pickens, who saved the shot.
He was subbed out for the second half.
3. Nagbe’s debut. Nagbe was acquired in a trade with Portland. Atlanta United Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra said Nagbe was the team’s No. 1 MLS target. He was coveted because of his ability as a passer, to beat opponents off the dribble and to maintain possession under pressure.
Though listed as a defensive midfielder, Nagbe played more between Chris McCann, the defensive midfielder, and Almiron, the attacking midfielder.
Nagbe was mostly quiet until the 14th minute, when he hit the post with a shot from 20 yards. Barco dribbled into the penalty box and played a pass to Gressel, who touched it for Nagbe to run onto.
Nagbe tried another shot in the 32 minute with a volley from 22 yards away off a corner kick. The shot caused some “ooohs,” but wasn’t on goal.
He picked up his first assist on a pass to Vazquez. Nagbe dribbled the ball for more than 40 yards down the middle of the field before he dropped it off to Vazquez for the one-time finish.
4. Three-man backline. As they played a few times last season, and Martino promised they would use again this season, Atlanta United switched from a four-man backline to a three-man backline in the second half.
Martino said the two outside centerbacks need to work on getting up the field more, and that they need to improve defending long passes, which is what led to Nashville’s goal.
5. Nashville’s debut. Saturday’s game was Nashville’s debut as a USL team. It will join MLS in 2019 or 2020. Just 3-1/2 hour drive, its proximity could provide Atlanta United a closer regional rival than Orlando City.
“For sure, in the U.S. there’s a way of thinking or things happening that if people want something to happen, it generally happens,” Martino said.