Atlanta United’s front office certainly has been busy lately.
It has kept many fans busy as well, seeing as how Atlanta might have single-handedly caused a viewership spike for Fox Deportes that might raise some eyebrows thanks to the Barco rumors.
But let’s step away from that for a moment to address the slightly less exciting side of Atlanta United’s improvements: defense.
Just this week Atlanta killed the suspense by announcing the signing of Jeff Larentowicz to a new contract. This was after there were concerns the team and player had hit a wall in negotiations. Larentowicz’s announcement came just days after the official announcement of Franco Escobar, adding another body to the back line.
Both signings reinforce a backline that finished fourth in the league in goals allowed and already returns three key pieces including the team’s captain, arguably the best left back in the league and arguably the best defender in the league. Escobar will probably be asked to slide out to the right and do the job that Anton Walkes did so well in 2017.
I literally can not scream it from the mountaintops enough that Atlanta only allowed 40 goals in 2017 while playing with its hair on fire in a high-pressing attack that was designed to run through your house with a lit torch.
A lot of that had to do with the back four and Jeff Larentowicz’s work when dropping into defense as he so often did.
Going into 2018 though, the roles could look a bit different. The acquisition of Darlington Nagbe makes the lineup a potential adventure.
One part of this adventure that you can take to the bank is Nagbe being a piece of this starting lineup. Teams don’t make the move Atlanta just made for a player to be a part-timer.
At 34, Larentowicz could be asked to potentially take on a part-time role as a second defensive midfielder behind Carlos Carmona – in this scenario Carmona has dropped back to the holding midfielder role – or provide depth behind the likes of Parkhurst and Gonalez-Pirez when called upon. At this point I don’t think it’s irrational to suggest that Atlanta would have the deepest defensive midfield in the league, and that’s before you get to Chris Goslin plying his trade up in Gwinnett or Julian Gressel sharpening his skills on the defensive side (Gressel adding ‘defensive midfielder’ to his resume would just continue his journey that I’m convinced he is on where he becomes Jacob Peterson 2.0 and I am more than ready to die on this hill.)
Carmona’s ability to be a destroyer behind Nagbe’s creation could fit for Atlanta, as could his ability to play with the ball at his feet as Atlanta plays out of the back. Larentowicz is more than capable of these tasks as well and is perhaps better suited to drop back between the center backs when the team attacks as we saw all season.
As far as the back line goes, Franco Escobar has spent a fair amount of time at center back but that option isn’t really open as long as Parkhurst holds up physically and Gonzalez-Pirez continues his extended vacation from Mount Olympus. Escobar is expected to slide out right and provide the stability in defense and threat on offense that Garza brings to the left side.
The right-back spot was a challenge for Atlanta in 2017 as Tyrone Mears never really fit and Anton Walkes was unable to consistently provide offensive support. Escobar could stabilize the spot for at least the next three years and even if there are rough patches, his age and skills don’t feel like a stop-gap the same way Mears did.
One concern at right back will most likely be depth. Atlanta isn’t particularly deep there at the moment and an injury could make things interesting.
Taking a step back and looking at the back of Atlanta’s starting lineup though, there’s plenty of reason to be excited. They’ve brought back most of the starters, made strides to improve some spots and even added some depth and flexibility.
Atlanta’s attack will outscore a lot of teams. Another year of this defense meshing, however, might be what makes this team a nightmare.