The rise and fall of dynasties in the soccer world show just how easy it is for even the best clubs in the world to fall from grace. The most obvious example in today’s modern era, Manchester United, is truly a shell of what the English club was even just ten years ago. Struggling to sign top players and only making the top four in the Premier League twice since they last won the league in the 2012/13 season highlights how far the club has fallen.
Needless to say, off-field decisions are a crucial component to a team’s success on the field. Front office officials are constantly looking for ways to improve their club’s chances of success and winning silverware. Different clubs go about that process in different ways based on the stature of the club and the resources available to them. Now that Atlanta United is entering its fourth year of competing for silverware, the question of which stage in the soccer cycle Atlanta United is in should be addressed.
So, is Atlanta United building, peaking, rebuilding or totally confused?
Straight off the bat, totally confused is the most obvious outlier. A club that has only competed for three years and already has three trophies in their trophy cabinet is not confused. Moving on.
Peaking is another word that shouldn’t be used to describe Atlanta United right now. There’s a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the club at the moment. Former captain Michael Parkhurst has retired, Julian Gressel has publicly expressed his frustrations about his current contact situation, the club didn’t pick up options on a multitude of players, and the current CBA negotiations could change the complexion of the league as a whole. Atlanta United was also extremely inconsistent last season and didn’t play its best soccer for large stretches throughout the year.
Rebuilding is normally associated with a club or a team that wants to return to what they once were. A prime example is Liverpool. They dominated during the 70s and 80s, but haven’t won a league title since 1990. After bringing in Jurgen Klopp to Anfield back in 2015, Liverpool are once again one of the top teams in Europe.
Years of an unhappy fan base expressing its discontent, poor results, an obvious decline in quality player signings and on-the-field product are normally signs that a rebuild will be necessary to bring a club back to where it wants to be.
Simply put, Atlanta United is not at that point (and hopefully won’t be anytime soon). Yes, the roster needs a rebuild but that doesn’t mean Atlanta United as a whole needs one. The front office has continued to do its job satisfactorily, the coaching staff and players performed well enough towards the end of the 2019 season, and the fans’ initial discontent with Frank de Boer has seemingly evaporated.
That leaves building. While Atlanta United has already won MLS Cup, U.S. Open Cup, and the Campeones Cup (Yes, that counts), the club is still aiming to win the CONCACAF Champions League and, eventually, the FIFA Club World Cup.
The club is still building towards those achievements and although it may take a few years to reach that point, Atlanta United is in a good spot. Atlanta United’s front office officials think about the short and the long term future. Projects such as Ezequiel Barco or former player Miguel Almiron show how the club wants to operate. That’s why the club will continue to sign young players, develop them, and move them on for a profit while also fielding a team that will (hopefully) deliver on the field.
So, how can the front office continue to move the club in right direction?
The connection between the fan base and the club needs to remain strong. Too often, clubs are unwilling to release information and communicate to their fans, resulting in a fan base that no longer trusts club officials or the plan that the club has laid out. The club has always maintained its relationship with the fans and Atlanta United players have hailed the fan support as a major reason why the team has generally performed so well at home over the last few years. Without the support from the fans, a lot of what makes Atlanta United special would dissipate.
Atlanta United understands its place in the soccer world and the club needs to play to its strengths in order to stay at the top level of American soccer. Atlanta needs to continue to follow its current model of bringing in young, talented players that will either go on to play a significant role in Atlanta or will be sold to a European club for a large profit. While Almiron hasn’t exactly had the best spell in Newcastle, the model is there. That model can be proven even further if Barco does make the move to Europe. That being said, Atlanta also needs to conduct smart business in the the transfer market. Almiron’s impact at Newcastle currently doesn’t reflect well on Atlanta United or MLS, but going to a club in a situation such as Newcastle’s (consistent low table finishes, stingy owner, etc.) doesn’t give many players a huge chance to go on and make a big name for themselves in European soccer. It’s fair to say that if/when Barco moves to Europe, Eales needs to send him to the right destination for the right amount of money.
The front office also needs to be able to tie important players down to long term deals. Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez has been destroying MLS ever since he signed with the Five Stripes but, instead of selling him for a profit, Darren Eales and co. were able to tie him down to a long term deal. While moving players on to Europe is one of the club’s important selling points for players that come to Atlanta, the club also needs to be able to tie down the players that may not make it to Europe. Signing Martinez to a long term deal was a statement that the club can find a balance between selling young talents and retaining its star players at the same time.
Atlanta is able to compete for trophies at the domestic level and has already proved that its able to compete for silverware every season. The challenge now is to maintain that level of determination and quality for as long as possible. If the front office continues to operate the way it has, Atlanta United will continue to improve and achieve its on- and off-field objectives. It seems that Atlanta United will continue to strive for and build towards its ambitious goals for the foreseeable future.