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Atlanta United’s 2021 “relaunch” is off to a promising start

With Gabriel Heinze reportedly on his way, Darren Eales’ promised “relaunch” is looking bright.

Velez v Defensa y Justicia - Superliga 2019/20 Photo by Gustavo Garello/Jam Media/Getty Images

It was just a day after Atlanta United’s season ended that club President Darren Eales and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra set the agenda for what was always going to be a momentous offseason.

“For so many reasons, this has been a crazy year,” said Eales in a press conference on that sunny Monday afternoon. “I think an advantage we’ve got is we get to go into 2021 with a new coach, with a chance to hopefully be back in front of our amazing supporters, and almost treat it like — it’s almost like back to 2017 and relaunching.”

“We need to move forward now,” said Bocanegra. “We need to learn from our mistakes and we need to learn from our challenges this year and make those right.”

With reports emerging Friday night that the club had reached an agreement with former Velez Sarsfield manager Gabriel Heinze, moves made Sunday to add an international roster slot, and a damn vaccine going into Americans’ arms today, it feels like that relaunch is on perfect course.

The two latter points will be addressed in due course. We’ll see what the team does to its roster when the transfer window opens in January, and we’ll hear more about the league’s plans on when to fully open stadiums as we progress in the first quarter of next year. (MLS Commissioner Don Garber spoke about the league’s 2021 start date at halftime of Saturday’s MLS Cup Final, and left room open for a delayed start after the league had recently announced it planned on it’s usual early March kickoff.)

For now, let’s bask in delight of the imminent arrival of Gabriel Heinze, and what his presence alone will mean for the club, it’s players, and the thousands of fans that are desperate to see Atlanta United back “at the right end of table,” as Eales put it.

Is Heinze still largely green as a manager? He is. Has he ever managed a team that expects to win trophies in its domestic league? Nope. There are certainly legitimate question marks surrounding Heinze, but no manager that Atlanta United would be able to secure was going to be without at least some uncertainty.

Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata v Velez- Superliga 2019/20 Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images

In Heinze, Atlanta United has a manager that checks as many boxes on the list of requirements as any. What makes him such an exciting hire is threefold:

  1. Heinze has a direct connection to Tata Martino, having played under the former Atlanta United manager in his last stint at Newell’s Old Boys in 2012-13. Heinze nearly played with Martino, as the youngster made his first senior appearances just one year after Martino left at the end of his playing career. And both, obviously, are Bielsistas. None of this necessarily means Heinze will come in and have immediate success — just as Martino didn’t. But it does mean Atlanta United will go back to its own footballing roots, playing an uptempo, aggressive, front-foot style that fans grew to love and immediately identify with.
  2. From day one, Heinze will immediately command the respect of the dressing room in Atlanta and could be the inspirational/demanding figure that will help get the best out of players Atlanta needs to have success. Obviously this is the case for a player like Ezequiel Barco, who is yet to consistently produce the kind of end product that the team needs out of its designated players. But it’s also the case for several others, potentially, like Fernando Meza, Eric Remedi, Franco Escoabar and more. While Heinze’s legendary playing career isn’t of much direct significance in his role as manager, Atlanta’s Argentine contingent will have spent their lives growing up watching him play for the biggest clubs and representing their own country at World Cups. That carries weight. While Frank de Boer’s playing career was just as impressive — arguably even more so — Heinze’s culture and footballing philosophy will be something this group understands and will get behind. Which lead us nicely into:
  3. Heinze will be able to communicate exactly what he wants from each individual and will drill, drill, drill these guys on the training ground. While Tata Martino’s teams often appeared on the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium like they were in total free flow, they were actually following a very rigid set of principals that they trained very thoroughly (sometimes so much that Tata got in trouble with the MLSPA). Under De Boer, it was almost the opposite — training much more often in large-group scrimmages with the idea that as long as the transition phases were sorted out, the players would use their natural creativity and skill in possession to carve up opponents. In the end, the group needed more clear, specific tactical instruction, and Heinze is exactly the kind of manager that will provide it.

Count me as one who is very excited to see where else this “relaunch” takes us.