Atlanta United will play the first of four preseason games on Saturday when it takes on Nashville SC at First Tennessee Park.
Perhaps the only thing tempering the excitement of seeing Ezequiel Barco, Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron and Darlington Nagbe potentially playing together for the first time is the weather forecast: rain and cold temperatures.
“We know it may not look perfect at times but that’s what these games are for,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “Most importantly, (we are) playing football, getting some of the kinks out that come with playing a real game.”
Manager Gerardo Martino said the goal for the opening game is continue the progress the team is making during the preseason so that they are in “the best form possible for the (regular-season opening) game at Houston.”
He said the weather forecast won’t change his player selections.
Nashville SC will play in the second-division USL this season as it transitions into becoming an MLS franchise expected to join the league in 2019 or 2020.
Atlanta United has spent the previous two weeks training in Florida in preparation for the season. After Saturday’s game the team will return to Atlanta for a few days before traveling to Charleston, S.C. where it play its final three preseason games in the Carolina Challenge Cup against MLS teams Columbus Crew on Feb. 17, Minnesota United on Feb. 21 and USL team Charleston on Feb. 24.
Here are five things to watch in Saturday’ game:
1. Will Barco play? The $15 million man, the most expensive transfer in MLS history, should play, unless Martino takes a look at the weather report that as of Thursday showed 100 percent chance of rain and 55-degree temperatures and decides not to risk the hamstrings and ankles of some of the players.
Barco, 18, has been with the team for more than 10 days and has been participating in all drills.
Though right-footed, he is expected to line up on the left in the spot held last season by Yamil Asad, who scored a beautiful goal with a curling shot in last year’s preseason opener at Chattanooga.
2. How long will the presumed starters play? I think the presumed starters are:
Goalkeeper: Brad Guzan.
Defenders: Sal Zizzo at right fullback, Jeff Larentowicz and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez as centerbacks and Greg Garza at left fullback.
Chris McCann will play holding midfielder, with Darlington Nagbe and Miguel Almiron up the middle.
Barco will start on the left and Julian Gressel on the right. Hector Villalba, Michael Parkhurst and Franco Escobar will sit as a precautionary measure.
Martinez is the striker.
Asked if he will use two groups of starters, Martino said no. Instead, he said some starters will play 45 minutes, some 50, some 60. It seems he is going to play it by feel.
3. Which of the regular backups will play? I think the better question is which won’t play. If the starters run a minimum of 45 minutes, it stands to reason that the regular backups/spot starters will finish the second half.
That group of players will be Romario Williams (not a regular last year, but I think he will be this year) in for Martinez, Kevin Kratz in for Nagbe, Alec Kann in for Guzan and Mikey Ambrose in for Garza or Hernandez.
4. What about the young players? Martino has said that Andrew Carleton should split time between Atlanta United and Atlanta United 2, so it seems likely he will play on Saturday.
Brandon Vazquez returned to training earlier this week, so he may get a few minutes in a role spelling Gressel.
Jose Hernandez may get a few minutes, assuming that Ambrose comes in for Garza. Because Martino said he hasn’t seen much of Hernandez before he signs, he may get most of the minutes in the second half. With Larentowicz likely coming in as a centerback, Chris Goslin or Oliver Shannon may come in the second as a holding midfielder in place of McCann.
5. Will Martino use a three-man backline? The manager said on the first day of training camp that the team would work on using a three-man backline, something they used a few times last season.
The team has the talent and a combination of players that can be used should Martino choose three defenders and five midfielders.
Because Saturday’s will be the first preseason game, Martino may choose to keep things simple and go with the four-man backline used most of last season as the players gain familiarity and confidence before going with the three-man backline in Charleston.