Well guys, we made it. I haven’t written one of these since November, but it’s finally the day before match day once again, which means I get to once again bring you a preview of Orlando City’s opposition from the viewpoint of a fellow SBNation blog.
This week, Orlando kicks off its 2021 season against Atlanta United, so I spoke with Dirty South Soccer’s David McFarland. As usual, he was very informative and helped bring us up to speed on what the Five Stripes look like this year. I also answered a few of his questions about OCSC, which you can find over at their place.
Obviously you don’t have a ton to go on with Atlanta only having played 2 competitive games under Gabriel Heinze, but how has the team looked so far?
David McFarland: We’ve seen three distinct forms of Atlanta United so far. The first 40 minutes in the first leg against Alajuelense was the best Atlanta has played since February 2020 (though that doesn’t mean much), with the Five Stripes dominating possession and circulating the ball with precision and speed for what felt like the first time in forever. Brad Guzan’s straight red card meant Atlanta had to bunker, but the Five Stripes held their own despite constant Alajuelense pressure.
The second leg then featured an overarching theme of sloppiness and overall disjointed play. In other words, exactly as you would expect a team with as many new faces as we have to play in its second game under a brand-new head coach. Growing pains are expected, and I think it will take at least a month for the best version of this team to appear. Still, the positive signs are there and some of the new signings already look more than capable. Orlando has probably felt similar, but it’s a great relief to finally see Atlanta United following a path again after last season’s aimless wandering.
You guys are getting Josef Martinez back after he missed last season through injury, which is obviously a huge deal on the field, but what do you think his return does for the team from a mental standpoint?
DM: Not only does Josef provide the goals, but he’s the heart and soul of Atlanta. When he went down injured last season, the team went down with him in a way. His emotion and passion were sorely missed in a dismal 2020 season, but now that he’s back Atlanta is already one step closer to re-finding its heights. It may still be a while before he’s back at 100% physically, but half the battle is already won just seeing him out on the pitch.
Tell me about how the roster has changed from last year. What were the biggest departures and arrivals?
DM: The one constant from the last couple of years in Atlanta has been major roster overhauls, and 2021 continued the tradition. Long-time stalwarts like Eric Remedi and Franco Escobar departed, while Fernando Meza was shipped out after only one season. Several other fringe players departed as well. The big signings were Santiago Sosa, Franco Ibarra, Alan Franco, and Ronald Hernandez. Sosa cost several million dollars to River Plate, but the midfielder looks the real deal so far. He’s splayed frequent long balls throughout the midfield but has a physical edge to his game as well. The Argentine already looks to be a penciled-in starter.
Ibarra is also a U-22 midfielder albeit a few steps behind Sosa in the development process. We may not see the best of him this season, but I’m excited to see him grow. Franco is a 24-year-old center-back brought in to solve Atlanta’s defensive issues and has high expectations thanks to his Designated Player deal. Hernandez is a right back on loan from Aberdeen and a bit of an unknown, but if he clicks under Heinze he could be one of the better fullbacks in MLS.
Are there any injuries or suspensions that will keep players unavailable for selection? What is your projected starting lineup and score prediction?
DM: I see Gabriel Heinze lining up in a 4-3-3 with Brad Guzan in goal, George Bello, Anton Walkes, Miles Robinson, and Brooks Lennon across the back line, while Santiago Sosa, Emerson Hyndman, and Marcelino Moreno will make up the midfield. The front three could have Ezequiel Barco and Jurgen Damm flanking Lisandro Lopez.
New center back Alan Franco is dealing with paperwork issues, Ronald Hernandez hasn’t made a match day squad yet, and Josef Martinez started Tuesday and is unlikely to get the nod again so soon. The only other question mark is whether Damm or Jake Mulraney starts after both were less than convincing against Alajuelense. I think Damm is the better option with his speed, but Mulraney seems a more natural fit for Heinze’s style of play.
As for the score, I’ll go with a 1-0 win for Atlanta. Would I really put any money on that happening? No. But is it possible? Yeah, I’d say so. The Five Stripes’ defense was their strong suit against Alajuelense, and if Atlanta snatches a lead, a rusty Orlando attack could struggle to find a way through. But first and foremost Atlanta has to improve from its second leg performance to even dream of a result.
Big thanks as always to David for a great briefing on a new-look Atlanta team. Vamos Orlando!