It’s been over a month since Atlanta United’s season was ended by Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference Final. The offseason is painfully dragging towards the new year and it seems as if most of the interleague transactions (trades, signings, etc.) have slowed to a crawl. The next big date for everyone to keep an eye on is January 1. That’s when the transfer windows around Europe and South America start to open and players can leave their clubs. For a soccer fan, this is our Christmas.
Considering the holes within the Atlanta United roster as it currently stands, it’s safe to think that they’ll be relatively busy between the time the window opens and the start of their competitive schedule in mid-February. While it’s technically true that the MLS transfer window itself doesn’t open until around the time Atlanta will play their first game, they can still announce signings from around the world like they have in each of the past four offseasons.
If you couldn’t tell, the Atlanta United-related news has been slow the past few weeks. This seems like a good time to assess where the roster stands now and what the club could have up their sleeves in the next six weeks heading into the Concacaf Champions League. Here is a fun little Christmas listicle of possible items that could be on Carlos Bocanegra and Darren Eales’ wish list.
Solving the left back problem
About this time last year the left back picture was clear. With the trade of Greg Garza, the plan seemed to be for George Bello to be the chosen one. He would get a chance for as many minutes as he could play and Brek Shea, who the club signed as a free agent around this time last year, would serve as his back-up. Unfortunately for Bello, 90 minutes was all he could play as he picked up a bad injury in the team’s first-ever CCL match away to Herediano in Costa Rica.
The plan was basically dead before it even got the chance to work. Shea would transition into the team’s full-time starter with Mikey Ambrose becoming the back-up. That went okay with some good performances and some bad until Shea himself went down with a season-ending knee injury and Ambrose got hurt too.
Ultimately, the left back situation was solved by mid-season acquisition Justin Meram, a player who’s been an attacker his whole career, becoming the team’s primary left-sided defender (left wingback) for the most important stretch of the season and into the playoffs.
Needless to say, the left back position last season was a problem. Heading into 2020 and it doesn’t look much better. George Bello remains the only one left standing and able to play the position as the roster stands. Shea, Meram and Ambrose are all gone. So are guys like Florentin Pogba and Michael Parkhurst, who could play there in a pinch.
Bello will be 18 by the time Atlanta begins their season. After his injury last season, the U.S. youth international never quite recaptured the form that saw him win Frank de Boer’s trust in the preseason. He played out the rest of 2019 with ATL UTD 2 with mixed results and went off to the U-17 World Cup where he got a few appearances with a very disappointing USA team.
After the success of Miles Robinson as a full-time starter under De Boer, it’s quite possible that the team sees the same path for Bello. Whether or not he’s ready for that type of role remains to be seen. What’s clear is that the team needs a back-up plan at the very least if not someone to help ease Bello into a potential starter role. It stands to reason that a left back is high on the wish list.
Replacing the irreplaceable
As I’ve already written about this offseason, the biggest task for the club during their roster building process has to be finding a replacement for Darlington Nagbe. One move has been made to make sure the midfield is solidified. Emerson Hyndman has been brought back on a permanent transfer from Bournemouth. It was an expected move and one that doesn’t exactly answer the big Nagbe question.
It’s hard to envision the club expecting Hyndman to be the direct replacement for the huge minutes and impact Nagbe provided for the last two seasons. This is not a knock on Hyndman. He offers some nice quality to the team, but in comparison to Nagbe, him being asked to fill that role would be unfair.
The club picked up a nice chunk of money in the Nagbe trade. It’s impossible to figure out what type of allocation money the club has to work with. Hopefully it’s enough to splash on a midfielder from outside the league who can come in and pick up the inevitable slack that Nagbe leaves behind. You’re not going to find another Nagbe, but perhaps you can find someone throughout Europe or wherever that fits the style Frank de Boer wants to implement. Whether that is a deep-lying playmaker or box-to-box engine or whatever Football Manager role you want to throw out there. I feel like if Atlanta United are going to have success in 2020, they’ll need to bring in an impact player for the midfield.
You know the deal. Brandon Vazquez has departed. The cupboard of strikers is pretty bare. Tito Villalba can play the position, but it’s not his ideal spot. Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez both have played makeshift supporting striker roles at times, but nah. Atlanta needs to bring in a striker and preferably one who could spell Josef from time to time or even possibly play alongside him to give the team the option for different formations.
During his time at Ajax, De Boer had success with big, technical No. 9’s such as Arkadiusz Milik, Siem de Jong and even current Earthquakes forward Danny Hoesen. Perhaps a striker of this mold would be a nice compliment to Josef and offer the team something they haven’t really had.
No matter the style, it seems pretty clear that they need to bring in someone who can save Josef from playing every single week and sometimes twice a week. Also, if he picks up an injury, it would be nice to have someone on the roster you’re confident in having out there instead of your best player.
The three needs above are the most obvious, in my eyes. Now I’d just like to rant on a few things I want for the rest of the offseason that may not be obvious.
I want a dynamic winger brought in. It seems like the plan now is to keep all three Designated Players, which means Barco and Pity will need to find a way to co-exist. For me, both players are far more influential and productive while playing in the middle of the attack. Both players love to find spaces centrally and look for those deadly throughballs and seem to struggle when asked to play out wide.
The problem is, Josef is the only one who is usually making the runs. With a pacey winger there to cause problems for defenses it would open up more space for Josef and give the likes of Barco, Pity and even Julian Gressel more options and runners to pick out. Justin Meram’s addition to the roster was very good and he fits the mold of what you’re looking for. Ideally, a winger signing would be just a little more dynamic (i.e. faster and better end product) than Meram was.
Last but not least, I want to see a conclusion to the Gressel saga. At this point, I’m not choosing sides. I can see both sides’ arguments for this dispute. I don’t care what happens, I just want something to settle it. The last thing anyone needs is the Gressel contract saga dragging on through next season and then losing him for nothing. I’m positive that several MLS teams would give up quite a bit of resources for him if there isn’t motivation for a deal to be worked out. There also should be some type of agreement to be made once the CBA is worked out, if that’s the way they want to go. Just get it sorted this offseason, please.
That’s it. What do you agree/disagree with? What would add?