Sneak Peek: Big names bring big expectations in Atlanta

As big-city expansion teams have come into MLS more and more ambitious, the pressure to perform well in that first season has grown.

Seattle set the bar pretty high in 2009 but still needed eight seasons to reach, and win, its first MLS Cup. Montreal reached its first conference final last year in its fifth season.

No one -- well, maybe a few southern-fried fanaticos --- expects a repeat of Chicago’s incredible feat of winning the 1998 title as a debutant, but both Orlando City and New York City set off a lot of buzz when they came into the league two years ago and so has Atlanta United.
 
Opening day …
Projected XI -- Kann; Mears, Parkhurst, Leandro Pirez, Garza, Larentowicz, Carmona, Villalba, Almiron, Asad, Martinez.
 
The CV of head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino is remarkable, and so is the cast of players assembled by him, technical director Carlos Bocanegra, and team president Darren Eales.

Yet much of that talent is very young; there is no equivalent to Kaka in Orlando City and David Villa and Andrea Pirlo at NYCFC, and pulling together all that youthful brilliance could take some time.

The spine of the team could include keeper Brad Guzan (who will arrive in the summer), defenders Michael Parkhurst and Zach Loyd, midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, and forward Jacob Peterson. They will provide the grit and experience to supplement the flair of playmaker Miguel Almiron and attackers Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba. The combined ages of those three players is 68. Forwards Romario Williams (likely headed on loan) and Yamil Asadare both 22.  So if you like your attack young and fast, this is your team.



Kenwyne Jones will supply the veteran guile and muscle up top, though at 32 he no longer resembles the striker that Stoke City bought for 8 million pounds ($9.25 million) in 2010. How much Martino uses his big man will be dictated by production, of course, and how the coach rates Jones’ influence in a rugged, physical league.

Jones and Chris McCann both missed a pair of preseason games to sort out their paperwork -- both qualify for green cards -- and might need another week or two to regain enough fitness and sharpness to start. It seems as if Larentowicz has been in MLS forever, but at 33 he can still deliver the goods in spot starts or off the bench.

The team announced Wednesday it had hit the 30,000 mark in season-ticket sales and two weeks ago said it had sold 40,000 tickets for the opening game Sunday against the Red Bulls. Capacity at Bobby Dodd Stadium, its temporary home, is 55,000. The league is confident enough of a packed and rowdy house that the game will kick off the season for Fox Sports 1.

One of the players to come aboard on loan is U.S. left back Greg Garza, whose prospects have dimmed at Tijuana. He’s hoping for regular national-team callups from Bruce Arena but needs to re-establish himself at the club level, and a new club is a fresh start for everyone.

“It should be a fun new project,” says Garza. “It’s always complicated having a new expansion team coming into the league, but it really looks like they’re a step ahead of all the other ones. They’ve made some pretty big signings and I just hope we can gel and find that chemistry to make it a good year.”
 
Who’s in …
GOALKEEPERS: Brad Guzan (Middlesbrough/ENG, Free Agent), Alec Kann (Sporting KC, Expansion Draft), Kyle Reynish (NY Red Bulls, Trade), Alexandros Tabakis (Panathinaikos/GRE, Free Agent). DEFENDERS: Mikey Ambrose (Orlando City, Expansion Draft), Mark Bloom (Toronto FC, Trade), Greg Garza (Tijuana/MEX, Loan), Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (Estudiantes/ARG, Transfer), Zach Loyd (FC Dallas, Expansion Draft), Tyrone Mears (Seattle Sounders, Trade), Michael Parkhurst (Columbus Crew, Trade), Miles Robinson (Syracuse Univ., SuperDraft), Anton Walkes (Tottenham/ENG, Loan). MIDFIELDERS: Miguel Almiron (Lanus/ARG, Transfer), Yamil Asad (Velez Sarsfield/ARG, Loan), Andrew Carleton (Homegrown), Carlos Carmona (Atalanta/ITA, Free Agent), Chris Goslin (Homegrown), Julian Gressel (Providence College, SuperDraft), Harrison Heath (Orlando City, Trade), Kevin Kratz (Philadelphia Union, Trade), Jeff Larentowicz (LA Galaxy, Free Agent), Chris McCann (Wigan Athletic/ENG, Free Agent), Hector Villalba (San Lorenzo/ARG, Transfer), Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu (Harvard Univ., SuperDraft). FORWARDS: Kenwyne Jones (Cardiff City/WAL, Free Agent), Josef Martinez (Torino/ITA, Loan), Jacob Peterson (Sporting KC, Re-Entry Draft), Brandon Vazquez (Tijuana/MEX, Transfer), Romario Williams (Montreal Impact, Trade).

Who’s out …
GOALKEEPERS: Clint Irwin (Toronto FC, Trade), Sean Johnson (New York City, Trade). DEFENDERS: Donny Toia (Orlando City, Trade). MIDFIELDERS: Junior Burgos, Jeffrey Otoo (Charleston Battery, Loan). FORWARDS: None.
 
First five games …
March 4 -- NY Red Bulls.
March 12 -- at Minnesota United.
March 18 -- Chicago Fire.
March 31 -- at Seattle Sounders.
April 8 -- at Toronto FC.

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