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Prekrap: Atlanta United vs. the pre-season - no more Unicorns, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride

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The end is neigh

MLS: Orlando City SC at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a new year and a new Prekrap. I’m going to make some changes around here. Gone will be long, meandering posts that are filled with bad metaphors, typos, run-on sentences, random hyphens, my beloved commas, lame memes, 1,500 word articles that only have six uses of end punctuation, exaggeration, vaguely rude things said about opposing players, teams, coaches, and fans, overreactions, under-reactions, shots at fellow MLS Analysts, love, sadness, loathing, joy, fear, dread, half-hearted attempts at cultural analysis, and GOING IN on the comments section or Twitter. I’m just going to be a dispassionate observer in 2020 - new year, new me!

At least that’s what I was resolved to do until the team transferred Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez and has kept stonewalling Julian Gressel’s contract extension. Oh well, I made it two weeks.

Behold, a pale horse, and he who sat on it, his name was Death. Hell followed with him.

Whatever existed before Frank de Boer took over is being swept away, retiring, or having a frustrating contract negotiation. The reasons for the moves being made this offseason are probably something along the lines of - it’s a new manager’s second year and this is the year that he gets to bring in his players... or at least get rid of the ones he doesn’t want. We might not know who his players are but we know who one isn’t: Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez. We also know that, at the very least, the front office feels like one of those players might not be Julian Gressel. The rest is speculation, but it includes the idea that Tito Villalba may not be in the team’s plans sooner rather than later for the future.

What’s incredible about this is if you ask: why? Why all the changes? In 2017 Atlanta United seemed to be building the perfect mix of players to create a lasting spine of a team that would contend for MLS Cup year in and year out. Josef Martinez, Julian Gressel, Yamil Asad, LGP, and Tito are a core of players that could have made up a 5+ year run of dominance in the league with players who would easily make the top five list in their position every season when healthy. Add in Miguel Almiron, and you have a dream roster to open an inaugural season with a pack of unicorns sliding down rainbows as the most exciting expansion team in league history.

Obviously, there were some changes in 2018, but, minus Asad, that core remained and the team took it to the bank in a championship season. Franco Escobar joined the fold, adding his name to that core of players who offered a bit of magic during the title run. On top of that, it was fun - so fun to watch as fans and seemingly so fun for the players also. Grandpa was pulling the strings and everyone went to Magic City to celebrate. The core players bonded together and the culture around the team was truly gluing it all together.

Last year brought changes. Almiron departed for the Premier League and a true once in a generation talent left MLS. He was never long for a league he was too good to play in to begin with, but if that core stayed intact then some version of Josef, Julian, Tito, and a no. 10 that changes every 2-3 seasons is the best front four in MLS and LGP is locking down the backline next to Miles Robinson who seems destined for a jump to a bigger league one day made it seem like there would be continuity. Even though Tata Martino left and with him went Miguel Almiron, it was difficult to see what could possibly turn the golden spike of 2018 that held everything together into a rusty maul that split it all apart.

Frank de Boer’s tenure was met with some early challenges. After some eye-popping preseason scores, the team struggled mightily to regain its championship form, was summarily dispatched by Monterrey and went into May in last place in the East. The team drew to FC Cincinnati at home, it wasn’t good. Things seemed like they were turning around with a bigger focus on defense and grinding out 1-0 wins, but allowing five goals to Chicago after the Gold Cup break was an abrupt U-turn.

As an MLS Analyst it was difficult to make sense of. Instead of tricking defenders into playing him onside, Josef was being asked to drift upfield to be more involved in the attack. Though he is a brilliant player who is really good, as anyone who watches soccer knows, Pity Martinez struggled to do things that fit American standards of quality in the sport like create assists, score goals, and not gesticulate wildly to the official after failing a dribble attempt. Meanwhile, central midfield was a void where Eric Remedi and not Darlington Nagbe was tasked with bringing the ball upfield while opposing teams were able to run straight through the center of the pitch virtually unopposed.

There were also expression of player unrest. LGP and Pity both made it clear that they were not happy with the direction that the team was going in. Pity was also uncomfortable with his new manager’s habit of making himself at home in the player’s locker room. It’s the player’s locker room after all, not the coach’s.

What was this? Was FdB just a bad coach? What was happening with that culture that had bound the team together?

Then things changed. In a game against the Seattle Sounders Josef Martinez scored. Then Josef Martinez screamed at his bench while watching his coaching staff celebrate his goal. He was clearly not happy that the tactics that did not work, and probably didn’t have anything to do with the goal he scored, were being so celebrated on the sidelines. Then Atlanta United started playing in the 3--5-2ish shape that it did when it won MLS Cup. Julian Gressel resumed his incredible service to Josef Martinez and the team won two trophies in a month. It was fast, beautiful, violent soccer that got results.

This did not seem in-line with what FdB wanted in terms of patient buildup and what he was trying to do in terms of possession and how Josef fit in the overall tactical scheme. This beckoned the question: who is coaching the team? It seemed a lot like the later than the former.

Fast forward a bit and by the time the playoffs rolled around, Atlanta had learned how to pump the breaks on the madcap violence of the summer and find something resembling balance heading into the match against Toronto FC. Of course, a pair of wondergoals ended the season, so 2019 went down as a success in terms of a good showing in the domestic cup and one international cup, while it was a failure in the post-season and Concacaf Champions League.

What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

Still, the contrast between the violence and patience perhaps lingered. While the team was more balanced, it certainly seemed like how the season turned around was more dictated by what the players demanded more so than what the manager wanted to, or could, do. In addition to a power imbalance, the team clearly had a clash of cultures. On one side, more free spirited players like LGP, Josef, and Pity were unhappy with a manager with a more prescribed style like Frank de Boer. What’s more they were loud about it.

There may have been other ways to handle the situation, and the way it’s going now may still not be the right course of action, but a change would be made. That change came in the form of sending LGP to Tijuana in exchange for a player who is a much different style of defender who does not seem like he will give Atlanta the same quality in terms of contribution to the attack or height. Something else may have been lost in the trade though: a sense of unity and culture that bound the team together in the last three years.

Whatever Atlanta United and LGP are saying about the trade (and they are saying a lot and in my opinion, most of it is spin and PR), it seems like this boiled down to is that several players, at the very least LGP and Pity, really did not like playing under Frank de Boer’s system. The team won’t, or can’t, transfer Pity and possibly did a lot of back-bending and sneaky quasi-MLS rule breaking stuff to send LGP to Tijuana. At the very least, if Meza isn’t a replacement for him, there will be one less loud and dissenting voice in the locker room if things go poorly again to start the year.

Elsewhere, other questions remain about that original core as Julian Gressel wallows in MLS salary cap hell. He’s a far better player than his contract reflects and he’s watched teammates get extensions while wanting, and deserving, to have a new contract for over a year.

You can replace a lot, but you can’t replace culture

Change is inevitable. In every major organization, people come and go, are replaced and life goes on. This can be done well or poorly, but one determining factor of how it goes is not getting too far away from what makes it all work. Coca-Cola learned this lesson when it thought it should create New Coke when really it just needed Michael Jordan to market its product.

For Atlanta United 2020 will be a year of change also. Darlington Nagbe is off to be ruined by Caleb Porter again, Michael Parkhurst retired, Justin Meram was let go, it goes on. These players are probably somewhat replaceable. Nagbe will be missed, but the pieces on the field can be formed to re-create his production for the most part. Parkhurst was a tremendous leader and for two seasons he was every inch the best centerback in MLS history while Meram was a difference maker who will be missed.

The front office is in different territory with LGP and Gressel. They bring more than just leading the team in starts and appearances - they bring a culture to the team. A set of values, an attitude, and the idea of what Atlanta United is to the table. It’s an intangible asset that sets a certain mood when they walk out onto the field. Letting one, or both, loose at the very least means that those intangibles have to start from somewhere new. At the worst, it means that the team will be selling New Coke and won’t have Michael Jordan to show up in their commercials to save the day.