When Leandro Gonzalez Pirez departed Atlanta United last winter, there were always going to be incredibly big shoes to fill for whoever came next. Atlanta United’s front office landed on Fernando Meza, at the time a 29-year-old (now 30) fellow Argentine with experience across the western hemisphere from San Lorenzo in his home country, to Colo-Colo in Chile and Necaxa in Mexico before finally coming stateside.
Safe to say, things did not go the way anyone — from fans to the front office to Meza himself — would’ve hoped.
Position: Center back
Games Played: 13 (13 starts)
What went right this season?
Not much! But looking at the numbers, perhaps Atlanta’s absolutely anemic attack makes players like Meza look worse and gives us more of a negative perception than is deserved. In the 13 matches in which Meza played (all starts) the team allowed only 16 goals, which is not terrible and a slightly better ratio than the 14 goals the team conceded in the 10 games in which he was absent. Even more notably, five of Atlanta’s six wins on the season (oy) came in Meza’s 13 matches, meaning the Five Stripes only won once in the 10 games he missed. So clearly while things looked messy at times defensively when Meza was on the field (which we’ll get to in the next section), the team performed better on the whole relative to when he was absent.
What does he need to improve on?
Most of all, there has to be better organization across the back line at setting the offside trap. Too many times when Meza was playing, the the center backs were staggered and created a sloppy line that left an opposing attacker onside. This comes down to having better communication with fellow defenders in-game, as well as having a more concrete predetermined plan of what situations they’ll want to set the trap and when they’ll need to retreat and defend in front of goal.
Generally, while Meza is pretty consistent in winning his duels, there are times when he need to impose more physicality on opposition players. Brad Guzan made note of these flaws after the team’s 2-0 loss to the Chicago Fire in September.
“I’m sure you can see the space, the gaps between our lines, the space that they had time to run into, time to pass the ball into, time on the ball, time off the ball,” Guzan said after the loss. “We weren’t good enough in those areas and we were getting picked apart...You look at the amount of times that their strikers got the ball in dangerous areas and had time: nobody up their backside, nobody shoving them, kicking them or confronting them and then you look at our attacking players, there are guys halfway up their back, kicking them into the 10th row, winning the ball, fighting, scrapping. We need to do that. We need to be stronger in the defensive third and not give them two-three yards of space to pass the ball and also receive the ball.”
What role will he play in 2021?
If Atlanta ends up hiring Gabriel Heinze or a similarly ambitious manager who will want to build from the back, Meza could play a big role for the club in 2021. Of course, there’s also a chance he could leave, with rumors emerging this fall that he could be moved to Club Tijuana. But his ability to carry the ball forward and even step into midfield could be exactly the kind of player that works well in a hybrid 3-4-3/4-3-3 kind of system. However, he needs the right players around him — particularly a passer in midfield whom he can give the ball to — and proper drilling and preparation on the training ground to get the best our of him.