New face may start for Atlanta United against Birmingham

Though a familiar face, one of Atlanta United’s newest signings likely will make his first start of the preseason for Atlanta United in Saturday’s friendly at Birmingham Legion. The game starts at 4:30 p.m. and is supposed to be streamed.

Manager Frank de Boer said Thursday that Anton Walkes, who played for the club in 2017 before re-signing in January, likely will start at centerback in place of Fernando Meza, who is securing his work permit.

The rest of the lineup seems likely to be composed of the players who will start the first Champions League at Motagua in Honduras on Feb. 18. 

“I’m 90 percent sure what I want,” he said.

Some of the predicted players are easy: Josef Martinez, Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco as the attacking trident. Brad Guzan in goal. Miles Robinson and Franco Escobar as the other two centerbacks with Walkes, Brooks Lennon as the right wingback and Emerson Hyndman as a central midfielder.

Guzan said Walkes, who spent the past two seasons playing for Portsmouth in England’s League One (third division), is more mature and confident than three years ago when he played for the squad while on loan from Tottenham Hotspur. Guzan said Walkes will bring a toughness to the team. Guzan played with several clubs in England, so he’s familiar with the challenges.

“Lower leagues in England, it’s not always pretty,” Guzan said. “It’s about competing, battling. He certainly will bring that aspect. It’s a matter of putting his passing boots on and not smashing it down the channel.”

Two positions that seem in flux are left wingback where Edgar Castillo, George Bello and Jake Mulraney are competing. Castillo hasn’t trained most of his week after sustaining a rib injury in last week’s friendly against Swedish club Elfsborg. The other position is defensive midfielder, where Eric Remedi and Jeff Larrentowicz are competing. Remedi started against Philadelphia and Elfsborg. 

“There are some players that I think we can change because other players are doing well at the position,” de Boer said.

The starters likely won’t play more than 60 minutes because the team has another friendly scheduled to be played Tuesday in Mexico against second-division side Leones Negros.

De Boer said Matheus Rossetto, another new signing, is a box-to-box midfielder or sitting midfielder. His signing was announced Monday, so he hasn’t had a lot of time to train with the squad.

“He’s a good player and has quality to be in the team,” de Boer said.

As for tactics, de Boer said the club may switch between playing with three centerbacks, which they did in the first three exhibition games, and four in the back. De Boer has referenced being tactically flexible several times in the past months as one the advantages of the squad. 

De Boer said there is enough versatility in the players that he doesn’t have to make a sub if he wants to make a switch. The club was going to practice in-game switching Thursday, but cancelled the session because of inclement weather. De Boer said they were going to work on it Friday.

“That’s what we want to achieve this week,” he said.

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