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Atlanta United weighs formation options as Héctor Villalba returns from injury

Mar 31, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Atlanta United forward Hector Villalba (15) controls the ball during the game against the Minnesota United at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United F.C. fans may see Héctor “Tito” Villalba return to the pitch at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday.

After not practicing with the team Tuesday and Wednesday, Villalba returned to training Thursday. He’s officially listed as questionable by the club for Saturday’s game against the Montreal Impact, but manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino said this week that Villalba “is good” to go for this weekend and will be included in the 18-man roster.

The 23-year-old Argentine forward suffered a hamstring injury in his left leg two weeks ago and has been in training off and on.

He didn’t play in Atlanta’s 2-2 home draw against NYCFC and did not travel with the club to Los Angeles, where United beat the Galaxy 2-0 last week. But Martino said Villalba could have played through the injury if the team needed him.

On Thursday, Villalba looked like his old self, cutting past defenders and firing rockets past keepers.

One of Atlanta’s strongest and more skilled attackers, Villalba played in 34 games for the Five Stripes last year, tallying 13 goals and 11 assists. He played in Atlanta’s first five games this year and has a goal and two assists to his name but has yet to play the full 90 minutes of a single game.

He could be key for the Five Stripes on Saturday, as they look to extend their unbeaten streak to seven games. Saturday could also mark the first time that Villalba shares the same pitch in a game with fellow Argentinian Ezequiel Barco.

Barco, 19, started the first game of his Major League Soccer career last weekend in Los Angeles and Martino came away very impressed with his play.

“He’s getting more comfortable, he’s getting to know the teammates and he’s forming a good partnership and chemistry with Darlington (Nagbe) and Miguel (Almirón) in the midfield,” Martino said Thursday through a translator. “And that’s important for us, that he’s able to make decisions on the field. Miguel is more explosive, but Ezequiel thinks the game really well.”

An attack that features Nagbe, Almirón, Barco, Villalba, Josef Martínez and Julian Gressel seems like the best in the league on paper, but the task now for Martino is figuring out how he will get all of those talented players time on the pitch and how he will fit them into a formation.

During this unbeaten streak, Atlanta has gone with a 3-5-2 set-up, but played often in the preseason with a 4-2-3-1 and played much of last season with a 4-3-3.

“It’s one of my wishes that we do go back to the four-man back line at times,” Martino said. “It’s harder to press in the 3-5-2, because you’re playing with five defenders, so it’s hard for us to get an extra guy up the field to help with the press.

“I think there are certain teams in the league where it will be more suitable for us to play a four-man back line, just based on the different characteristics of the teams.”

Is Saturday’s game the right match-up for a four-man back line? Montreal has scored just nine goals this season, compared to Atlanta’s 17, but an attack led by Ignacio Piatti is still dangerous.

Whatever formation Martino rolls with, Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan will make sure the back line keeps track of Piatti.

“The level of confidence he gives to other players on that team… It’s important that we keep an eye on him and know where he’s at all times throughout the game,” Guzan said. “He can change the game with one pass, with one strike. He’s got that ability.”

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