The MLS off-season is upon us.
Despite not having officially announced their new manager yet, Carlos Bocanegra and Darren Eales have been hard at work reshaping Atlanta United as part of their “re-launch” initiative. News is already starting to pour in from South America about our presumptive new manager’s wishlist of dynamic young Argentinian talents headlined by Boca Juniors’ Augustin Almendra and the exciting possibility of Velez Sarsfield’s young phenom Thiago Almada potentially following his coach to Atlanta. There will be countless exciting reports emerging over the coming weeks but it will also take another type of signing to bring Atlanta United back to glory. A big part of Atlanta United’s dominant rosters under Tata Martino was the veteran leadership of Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz. With both of those players gone and with Brad Guzan remaining as the sole veteran leader on the roster, a “re-launching” club should prioritize restoring this core of veteran leaders.
This week, Atlanta United will get the opportunity to add those key players through offseason machinations unique to Major League Soccer. Due to the nature of the league’s history, relationship with the players’ union, and evolving understanding of free agency, teams may acquire the rights to negotiate with players through End-of-Year Waivers, a Re-Entry Draft, and Free Agency.
To start the week, teams completed a Half-Day Trade Window in which expansion teams generally shell out xAM for key roster pieces, and other teams swap International Roster Slots. Atlanta United was active, exchanging Jon Gallagher for GAM, and seemingly flipping that GAM for one of Nashville’s 2021 International Slots.
The next step is the expansion draft. Atlanta United are exempt from the Expansion Draft after losing Brandon Vazquez to Nashville last winter, so the next event-of-interest for the 5-Stripes is the Waiver Draft on Wednesday, Dec. 16 (1 p.m. ET). The Waivers allows clubs at the bottom of the 2020 table the opportunity to acquire young out-of-contract players who have not qualified for Free Agency of the Re-Entry process. Andrew Carelton will be a familiar face in this group. FC Cincinnati will select first, followed by clubs in advancing order of season standings, culminating with the 2020 MLS Cup champions Columbus Crew SC and expansion club Austin FC. The list of these players are at the bottom of this report released by MLSSoccer.com. It is doubtful that Atlanta United will acquire any of these players.
Immediately following the End-of Year-Waivers process, Free Agency also will open on Dec. 16 for players who are at least age 24 with at least five MLS service years and either option-declined or out-of-contract. Free Agents can negotiate a new contract with any MLS club, including their previous team, subject to certain restrictions. There is no limit on the number of Free Agents a team may sign each year. Free Agents may participate in the Re-Entry Process.
Free agency in MLS is where teams can load up on veteran starters on defense and depth throughout the rest of the roster. If we consider the way the team has consistently pieced together their rosters, we can make a strong guess that there will be some MLS veterans with a lot of miles and potentially some national team minutes on their resumes. We have identified four players who could potentially help this team.
Justin Morrow - LB
Justin Morrow is still an excellent leftback, is an outspoken leader on his team and in his community, and could push George Bello as a mentor and competitor to further his development in his second full season with the first team. Bello seems poised to join the US Olympic delegation and potentially the U-20 World Cup roster, too, so even a healthy season for him will have gaps throughout. Competent fullbacks with a lot of energy and intelligence are exactly what a demanding Bielsa-style coach will need so count Morrow as a high priority signing.
Matt Besler - CB
Another major need for Heinze will be central defenders comfortable with the ball at their feet. This is not yet a reliable skill for Miles Robinson, and Fernando Meza has not yet proven he can be healthy for long enough stretches to be relied upon for a full-length season. Matt Besler brings a world of experience from World Cups to MLS Cups that can be called upon as a reliable veteran backup who can be that distributor alongside Robinson. Besler can still be a fantastic player at 34 years old and could bring the sort of necessary leadership that departed with Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz.
Wil Trapp - DM
Wil Trapp is a polarizing player. His presence on Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT teams and on previous national teams created the same consternation in the fan-base only found elsewhere when conversations circle around to Michael Bradley. In spite of the colossal mountain of disdain often thrown his way, Wil Trapp can still be a serviceable player in the right role on the right team. The problem would be to expect him to be a dynamic lynchpin or be “the guy”. He’s not that kind of player. He will offer stability in the holding mid-field position as depth, and will likely be thrilled to be out of Miami.
Bradley Wright-Phillips - CF
Atlanta United need players who can score who are not also named Josef Martinez. When Martinez went down with his season-ending injury in 2020, Atlanta United were left searching for someone, anyone, who could attempt to fill the Josef’s spot at the center forward position. With all due respect to Adam Jahn, JJ Williams, Cubo Torres, and a handful of others, it was an unmitigated disaster. Bradley Wright-Phillips can still score. He may not be the same prolific force that he was with the Red Bulls but a striker like BWP never loses that itch to score and score in bunches. The 2020 Comeback Player of the Year would serve as a good late substitute and a good insurance policy for Josef’s recovery and would be another strong veteran leader for this club.
On Thursday, Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. ET, the Re-Entry Draft will begin. There are a lot of familiar names in this draft from Atlanta United and from other teams. This is a diverse group, with loaned players like Cristian Pavon returning to their parent clubs, high-value players at the end of the contracts, old veterans whose options were declined, and former young starlets whose shine has faded.
From the Re-Entry Draft pool, there are a few players who could help this team as depth or rotational starters when our young players are called away in what will be a very busy year for international competition.
Greg Garza - LB
Maybe the second time is the charm for fan-favorite Greg Garza. For this to truly be a re-launch, we want to have Greg Garza back. Atlanta United can take a big step in that direction by selecting Garza with their early pick in the Re-Entry Draft on Thursday. Garza can still charge up and down the sidelines with the same ferocity and skill that we only got glimpses of in his time in Atlanta, and if he is tasked with a lighter workload as Bello’s backup, Garza could thrive.
Joe Corona - CM
Joe Corona is yet another former-USMNTer on this list. Corona has played well for the LA Galaxy for the most part over the last two seasons but has gotten caught up in the general mess that is the Coach Schelotto tenure. Corona can still be a reliable player in the center of the pitch who can play with intensity and thread a tantalizing pass. I would not start him on this team but Atlanta United would be fortunate to have him. The main question that would come with adding Corona would be the future of Mattheus Rossetto or Emerson Hyndman, but we shall cross that bridge if we ever get to it.
That does it for this round of roster speculation. Check back later this week for more news as these players find their homes for 2021.
Until then, tell us who you think Atlanta United should sign to bring veteran leadership back to this club and to fill in the depth that will be vital in a congested 2021 season.