Leandro Gonzalez Pirez’s departure from Atlanta United is a stark awakening for Atlanta United fans.
Liga MX’s Club Tijuana agreed to terms with Atlanta United for the sale of Gonzalez Pirez Friday — a move that spells the end for its second most-capped player in club history, and one who was present for every major landmark occasion. Gonzalez Pirez featured in the club’s MLS debut, it’s MLS Cup victory, and even christened Mercedes-Benz Stadium with its first goal.
The awakening isn’t that Atlanta fans haven’t dealt with the emotional loss of seeing a native son leave for foreign pastures. It’s not even that Atlanta hasn’t replaced Gonzalez Pirez with a decent quality center back. It’s that LGP’s departure represents a changing of the guard, and the unknown future is a scary thing to think about.
Since his arrival in Atlanta, Gonzalez Pirez was a fan favorite. His affable personality off the field and his quality on it made for the type of player you simply couldn’t take your eyes off of — an impressive feat for a center back.
It became clear the Argentine from Estudiantes was a different breed of center back than much of what fans had grown accustomed to seeing in MLS. He was a tangible manifestation of the playing philosophy the club hoped to instill under Tata Martino in 2017 — keeping the ball on the ground and building from the back in a league seeded in a style of brute force. And beyond what he gave the team tactically, Gonzalez Pirez represented the very ethos of the club more broadly — a brash renegade who made no apologies for taking risks.
An MLS Cup title in 2018 further secured a spot for LGP in the hearts of Atlanta United fans forever, as did the rest of the key contributors on a team that won the city its first major men’s pro sports championship in more than two decades. But following the end of that chapter of the club, there was a mini-exodus. Tata Martino, the father-like figure to many of the team’s Latino contingent exploring a new life in America, left to return to national team management with Mexico. Miguel Almiron, the team’s heartbeat on the pitch, was sold to Newcastle United for a fee that would set multiple records.
To his credit, Gonzalez Pirez persevered in Atlanta following the league title. But all was not well from the jump in 2019. Rumors emerged in the offseason that Argentine giants Boca Juniors sought his transfer, and LGP hardly denied them.
“Boca is a big challenge in my country. Whatever they decide, it’s OK... I’m trying to think about here,” Gonzalez Pirez told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last January. “Now, I’m playing for Atlanta United. This is the most important for me. It’s a big club that wants me, but I try to think here.”
The negative externalities of the rumor crept onto the playing field in 2019, and Atlanta United’s second-most capped player in its history had, by most accounts, his worst season wearing the five stripes on his chest. Gonzalez Pirez was now playing under a manager in Frank de Boer who prioritized winning aerial duels and maintaining consistent positioning on the back line — hardly LGP’s mandates from his previous manager.
“We knew this year was going to be different because we’d been with Tata for over a year, so everyone was familiar with how things were going,” Gonzalez Pirez said in early April after the team failed to win any of its first four league games. “We knew it was going to be a new year. We didn’t necessarily expect this start — we would like to have won a game. But the important thing is that we’re all working hard as a group to try to understand each other, get on the same page, and working to get the results that we want.”
Tactical friction was compounded by Gonzalez Pirez’s growing influence in the dressing room after the void left by Tata Martino. LGP was now the elder-statesman of the team’s Hispanic contingent, and he was having his own struggles adapting to a manager greatly restricting his freedom on the pitch.
If there’s one thing we learned observing Atlanta United in 2019, it’s that Frank de Boer is hardly an easy manager to play for. He expects precision from his players at all times. From a man-management perspective, he was the antithesis of Tata Martino. Michael Parkhurst explained it in The Athletic last February.
“The cultures are just so different,” said Parkhurst regarding the change in tone around the club. “The South Americans are so loud and they enjoy themselves. 10 o’clock training might start at 10:05 and it’s no big deal. In Germany, if you showed up at 10:01 for a 10, they were like, ‘Go home. What are you doing?’ So it’s definitely different with Frank and his staff.”
Over time, the narrative evolved to De Boer “adapting” to the tactical preferences of his team as the season wore on. But the distance between the two bookends of the season was anything but a straight line. There was plenty of friction along the way. De Boer disrupted the dressing room any number of times last season, most notably when referring to players as “danger[s] for the team” after matches, or pissing off Josef Martinez after celebrating a goal in which the team had been losing.
And all of this disruption was embedded in the worst run of performances Atlanta United fans had seen since its inception. Barely managing to stay within the relevant portion of the table, the soccer was dour. During the team’s season-best six-match winning streak in early May, the most common result was a 1-0 victory, which happened three times. Things worsened into the summer before the team drastically changed tactics against the Houston Dynamo in July.
“Things have changed a lot, the way the club has played the game and we don’t like it,” Gonzalez Pirez told reporters at MLS All-Star team training. “We’re working to return to the way it was before and how we characterized through and differentiated us apart from other teams.”
Thankfully for all parties involved, the team finished the season strong with a U.S. Open Cup title, an impressive win in a supercup against Club America, and an impressive playoff run that was unluckily stopped short. But through it all, it became increasingly clear that LGP’s happiness at work was becoming untenable, particularly with the player’s contract dwindling near its end. Things could not continue the way they had into 2020, and moving the player became the most practical solution.
Players have returned back to the training ground to prepare for CONCACAF Champions League play. In a way, it’s a welcomed return to normalcy, but Monday’s first day of training will certainly feel like something is missing without LGP in the mix. Those who watched him play in Tijuana’s Clausura opener Friday night will have seen the exact same player they remembered in Atlanta. And Atlanta will be changed for is forever changed by his departure.
No one really knows what an LGP-less version of Atlanta United will look like — will feel like. The only thing we know for certain is that it’s a new era for the club, one that is tied to the vision of vice president Carlos Bocanegra and its second-year manager Frank de Boer.