It was bittersweet at Atlanta United's training ground yesterday. Although it was the last official day of practice for the club's 2017 season, players and the front office staff seemed to be chomping at the bit for the 2018 campaign to begin. There was plenty to take away from the thoughts and muses of technical director Carlos Bocangra, as well as a plethora of players eager to talk about the past, present, and future of Atlanta United.
Looking back on the inaugural season:
"We're very pleased with what we were able to accomplish on and off the field. We fell a little bit short. We wanted to make a deeper playoff run, but we don't want that to tarnish what a great season it was for us. Overall, we're pleased with it, but it left everyone wanting more and to bring a championship back here. However, that shouldn't discredit what happened here."
On how the season ended:
"It hurt for everyone. You saw the month of September that the players had to put in. Losing on penalties doesn't feel good, but they left everything out there on the field and that's something we're very proud of."
On the status of loanees Yamil Asad, Greg Garza and Anton Walkes:
"At the moment, we're having internal discussions but I don't have too much to comment on those guys."
On Jeff Larentowicz's future:
"Jeff falls into the category of guys we're having internal discussions with and we haven't had any decisions made yet."
On what offseason moves the club is looking to make:
"It's more just depth for us. You look at a team like Toronto that can take someone out of the midfield, put another guy in, and it's the same. The level doesn't drop. That's always a challenge for a first-year team. It's not like we need to blow this thing up. We need to create competition in a few positions and really try to get some depth all over the field."
Bocanegra declined to comment on the Franco Escobar rumors and said that no contact was made by national teams for Tata Martino.
Takeaways: Sorry Sam Jones, but the future of Larentowicz is as up in the air as the loanees. Tattoos last forever though.
Depth was certainly the most obvious issue for Atlanta this season, especially towards the end of it. The front office made that obvious with the release of multiple players that were on the bottom half of the depth chart. It'll be interesting to see who they bring in to replace them.
On how the season ended:
"I don't think we're over it. I don't think until the season is over and we're not watching any more MLS games and maybe the new season begins do we get over it. When I watch the conference final games tomorrow night, I'll still be thinking 'man, we should be out there'. It's an ongoing process."
What the team needs to do in the offseason:
"Having a year under our belt will be a plus now that the core of the team knows what the league is about and what it demands on a weekly basis and the unknowns that MLS can bring. It's good that we're going to have a good group of the core together again and that they've been able to hold onto some guys that are obviously wanted. We have to improve. We have to get more players in here that are going to push to start and make the team better. There's turnover every year. We're going to have that. You want to bring in new competition and keep things fresh and I'll expect that they'll do that."
Player that could have a much bigger impact next season:
"You'll have to ask me that again in pre-season once we have new players, but I think obviously everyone wants to see Andrew Carleton get some time. Obviously he's an exciting young player. It's difficult with the talent we have on the team, so hopefully he has a good offseason and a very good pre-season and keeps pushing because he has some skills that you want to see how they translate to the pro level and I think he can be successful. It's a matter of time with him, but we don't know how soon that'll be.
Brandon Vazquez obviously had some good games for us. It was unfortunate he wasn't there at the end with us due to injury, but for him to get his first full season under his belt, I expect to see him progress and play an even larger role next season."
Takeaways: The Andrew Carleton Hype Train can continue, and Vazquez can tag along.
If he thinks about the penalty shootout against the Columbus Crew:
"No. Penalties are penalties. Hopefully you save a few and you give the guys on our side a chance to win the game for us. On another day, it would've been nice to save one or two others and we would've converted ours and it would've hopefully been a different outcome, but that's what penalties are all about. It's not a fun way to lose, especially in a playoff situation. It is what it is."
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez
What surpassed his expectations of MLS:
"It exceeded a lot of my expectations to be honest. Coming into the league, I was expecting it to be a competitive league, but it was even more competitive than I had anticipated. I thought that there would maybe be a few teams that weren't good enough to make a difference and implement their play, but not at all. All the teams are competitive. The worst team could beat the best team on any given day.
Also, the support of the fans. I thought coming to a country where soccer isn't the number one sport that it would be different, but it was exactly the opposite. We played in front of sellout crowds all the time, especially at home. However, even the fans on the road, you can tell that there's great support in this country."
What he could work on in the offseason:
"Overall, I'm happy with the season that I've put in. Hopefully finishing fourth in the Defender of the Year race means I'll finish even higher next year. There's always things that players can improve on. One thing for me is maybe having less fouls and less yellow card suspensions for the next season. That's something that I'll work on."
Takeaways: Yeah, all Atlanta supporters would like to keep LGP on the field as often as possible.
On the rumors of European clubs approaching him:
"As you say, those are all just rumors. I'm just thinking about Atlanta. I'm thinking about going home to spend the vacation with my family and then thinking about the pre-season. Like I've said before, my goal was always to make it to Europe. However, at the present time, I'm just thinking about Atlanta and focused on improving and next year we'll see what happens."
If he regrets asking to go fifth in the penalty shootout against the Columbus Crew:
"I don't know if I regret it because I think we have very talented players on this team and everyone is capable of stepping up and taking a penalty. Yes, it was painful not being able to have a shot. However, I don't regret it because all the players on our team are very talented high-level players. Anyone is capable."
Biggest difference between playing in Argentina and the United States:
"I think in Argentina, it's just different. It's a little more dynamic, but just the way people experience soccer in South America is a little bit different than MLS. Even saying that, what surprised me a lot this season was the fans and the support in the U.S., especially for our team in Atlanta."
On if less time commitment to youth national teams next season will be beneficial for his playing time with Atlanta:
"Yes, definitely. I feel like this year we were gone the majority of the season. For the World Cup we were gone almost a month and a half and then during the season we had five or six camps. For this upcoming season, not having to worry about leaving and just getting to be with the team this whole time should be good."
As a homegrown player, how it's been seeing the club grow over the past year:
"It's just been a dream. All your friends are at every game. They're always telling me 'Bro I can't believe you play for Atlanta United now. That's crazy.' With all the support, all the sellout games and setting so many records, it's just been amazing."
Takeaways: One gripe that many have about the youth national team set-up is how much time is taken away from players and their potential club duties. It'll be nice to see what Carleton and Goslin will be able to do with the first team without too many distractions.
Biggest piece of advice for the three new homegrown players(George Bello, Lagos Kunga and Patrick Okonkwo):
"I'd tell them to go in and not be afraid to make mistakes and to be confident in their ability. They signed a professional contract for a reason. They have talent."
His experience in India for the U-17 World Cup:
"It was a blast. I know the first time we went there a couple years back, it was hard. It was the middle of summer and it was just hot as can be. The food wasn't great and so going into it we were like 'Dang man I don't know what we're going to do for the next month'. However, whenever we were there we brought our own chef and the weather wasn't as bad. It was a great experience playing against the best kids in the world and testing yourself against them."
What he needs to do to get into the Atlanta first team next season:
"Being more consistent. There will be practices where I do really well and I think we just need to show that coach can rely on us in every situation whether that means for five minutes, ten minutes or ninety minutes. We have to show that we're consistent and up for the challenge, playing against some of the best guys in the league."
If he has his eyes set on the 2022 World Cup:
"I think it starts here in Atlanta. The more first team minutes I get and the more minutes that I get to show in front of whoever the new national team coach will be, I think I'll show that I'm ready for the next step. Yes hopefully Qatar, but to be in Qatar, you probably have to be at a few qualifying matches. Hopefully I'll be able to break in before that."
Takeaways: It's going to be really odd looking back on this in five years when Carleton is averaging a hat-trick per match in Qatar.
On winning Rookie of the Year:
"Cool. Like I said before, I think it's a pretty cool accomplishment for me personally and obviously for the club and everyone that has impacted my soccer career. It's just something that says that I had a great first year, but it doesn't get me anything for next year or the future years that are ahead. I'll just keep working hard and doing my thing and hopefully good things like that will happen more often than not."
What it's like seeing the club get multiple accolades:
"It speaks to the quality of us. It's not necessarily just individual performances. It speaks to the whole team that we kind of stand out as a group, which is good. However, we kind of have to find a way of getting that to team trophies, not just individual trophies."
On his former coach Gian Pero Ventura missing out on the 2018 World Cup with Italy:
"I'll keep that opinion to myself. However, I feel bad for some of my former teammates because it's just something that hasn't happened in a long time."
If he was surprised to get subbed off in extra time against the Columbus Crew:
"It's another one that's an opinion for me."
What he learned from Tata Martino:
"The most important thing is just that players are able to have fun on the field. Also, to be a role model and to help the younger teammates that we have on the team."
Takeaways: Sometimes no response is all one really needs to know.
It's nice that Martino seems to put an emphasis on having fun on the field. That translated very well throughout the season, and probably with Martinez the most.
On winning Goal of the Year:
"I play a lot of FIFA and when I play as myself in the game, sometimes I'm not able to do that. I try, but I'm not able to do it again."
On who the best FIFA player on the team is:
"Me of course. Miguel(Almiron) is second. He runs a lot in the game."
If he was surprised at how quickly the team gelled on the field:
"Yes, I was surprised at how quickly we developed chemistry. Tata sees the game a different way. He makes you play a different way on the field. With him and the players that we had, we were able to build that chemistry.
If he's going to grow his beard until they win a title:
"No, I'm only growing it for a few more days because my barber's back in Argentina."
If the playoff loss will be used as motivation:
"Not the loss. I don't think losing serves as motivation. Losing hurts. I think what serves as motivation is how this team, in its first season, took on the league and showed everyone what we're capable of."
Takeaways: Villalba's really funny and genuine, I want to play him in FIFA, and someone needs to find his barber ASAP.
Everyone affiliated with this club is ready to start the 2018 season. It was great to hear their thoughts on an array of topics. The general feeling was that the players loathe this upcoming offseason. I think the fans would attest to that, but that's actually a good thing. It means that we as a city have something to look forward to. When anticipation can be built, things are going well.
So like...now what do we do for the next couple months?