As Atlanta United fans gear up for the 2018 MLS debut, they were hit with some tough news on Wednesday. Ezequiel Barco, who found a spot in the starting lineup throughout preseason, was ruled out for 4-6 weeks with a quad strain. But Atlanta United’s front office repeated throughout the offseason that their focus was on increasing Head Coach Tata Martino’s tactical options, so the squad is more than ready for moments like this.
A look back at the past can help give a clue as to what the future holds for the coming weeks as head coach Tata Martino continues to shape his lineup for the regular season. From what we’ve seen in the 2018 preseason, here are five players ready to step into Barco’s role on the left wing:
The reigning MLS Rookie of the Year’s versatility was what made him a vital part of the 2017 season, and his ability to fill in during injury stretches made him invaluable. So while many of his minutes were on the right last season, a straight swap putting him at left midfielder could be an easy change for Tata Martino. He is fully capable of playing at either wing, and his defensive pressing and composure in possession would be an easy fit in place of Barco.
Atlanta United’s first homegrown signing has shined on the wing for his age group at the U.S. Men’s National Team, and played well in his first-team minutes in the US Open Cup last season. He followed that up with an impressive showing against USL side Charleston Battery in preseason just last weekend, which prompted Tata Martino to say after the game that he’s edged closer to first-team minutes. The kid that fans call Frosted Orange is still young, but has shown he has the skills to compete. Could it come as soon as week one?
Another young U.S. international that has competed for first-team minutes since the start of last year, Vazquez started on the wing in the team’s final preseason match against the Charleston Battery last week. He has made an impact off the bench for the Five Stripes in MLS matches last season, and even scored in his debut last year against Real Salt Lake.
Tata Martino experimented with Miguel Almirón on the wing last year, and he’s shown that he is perfectly comfortable out wide during his stints with the Paraguayan national team. With options like Gressel, Nagbe, Chris McCann and Kevin Kratz all proven MLS players available to push up into the middle, Atlanta’s number 10 could fit right in on the left wing.
Darlington Nagbe has thrived centrally so far for Atlanta United, but he has a history of playing further up the field for both his former club team, the Portland Timbers, as well as the U.S. Men’s National Team. His skill on the ball could be an effective tactical replacement, with his ability to beat people on the dribble in one-on-one situations a possible way to fill in on the wing.
Injuries are an unfortunate reality for any sports team, but this team is built on depth and tactical flexibility with talented players across several positions. With multiple options at his disposal, all eyes will turn to Saturday to see how Tata Martino adjusts to make sure the Five Stripes are firing on all cylinders from the first matchday.
Kickoff for Atlanta United’s 2018 MLS debut is set for 3:30 EST on Univision as the squad takes on the Houston Dynamo on the road. They’ll then return to Atlanta for their home debut at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on March 11th against D.C. United. Tickets to that match are still available, so make sure you’ve secured yours here.