For better or worse, a theme in the history of Atlanta is rising again. The history of that idea isn’t always pretty, but in recent years it’s been reclaimed as a sort of identity of the city. Most everything in Atlanta is new. Spiller Park became Murder Kroger which became fancy apartments, the Governor’s Mansion was knocked down to make way for the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel, even the Masquerade is being turned into some kind of gaudy monstrosity, and the Lightning neighborhood made way for the original Georgia Dome and then Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Clearly, not all of these changes can be seen as progress in the city’s history.
To the extent that Atlanta United reflects this in its short time as a part of the fabric of the city is going to be most clearly visible in 2020. The initial doubts about soccer working in Atlanta were easily pushed aside, the team roared out of the gates and rose to have a historic season in its second year in MLS. Year three saw steps in every conceivable direction and dimension. It seemed like some changes were needed in 2020, but instead what has happened is nothing short of a classic Atlanta Resurgens moment - a near total rebuild.
Going into the offseason the team’s needs were fairly well established. Replace Darlington Nagbe, find defensive depth, maybe add a few other pieces here or there. Here is what has happened:
Darlington Nagbe: Traded, not replaced
Julian Gressel: Traded, not replaced, arguably irreplaceable but it seems like Emerson Hyndman got whatever could have been spent to extend his contract before this season
Parkhurst: Retired, not replaced
Florentin Pogba: Not resigned, replaced by Anton Walkes
LGP: Traded, replaced by a player who might be undersized but should be able to excel in MLS because of his technical ability, and how has the very valuable skill of being on the manager’s good side
Mike Ambrose: Traded, replaced by Edgar Castillo
Brandon Vazquez: Lost to expansion draft, replaced by the highest scoring American in professional soccer in 2019, Adam Jahn
Justin Meram: Option declined, replaced by Brooks Lennon I guess
Chris Goslin: Easily replaceable
Jose Hernandez: Easily replaceable
Patrick Okonkwo: Easily replaceable
Kevin Kratz: Option declined, good night sweet prince - replaced by Jake Mulraney I think...
Brek Shea: Out of contract, duality like he possessed will be impossible to bring back to the club until Balotelli arrives
Jon Gallagher: Still on loan to Aberdeen
Dion Pereira: Easily replaceable
Lagos Kunga: Loaned to Phoenix Rising, Easily replaceable
Tito Villalba: Transferred - ATLANTA UNITED CHEATED TO HAVE FOUR DESIGNATED PLAYERS AND TRADED ONE, THEY WILL NEVER REPLACE HIM WITHOUT FINDING A NEW WAY TO CHEAT AGAIN, THIS IS INCREDIBLE. That aside, when Tito was on his game he was lightning in a bottle - fast and fun with an absolute cannon for a leg and a stone cold killer against Orlando and NYRB.
Andrew Carleton: Loaned to Indy XI, presumably the terms of the loan are that he must drive a Dawoo Lanos and has his passport duct taped to his torso. Easily replaceable
That is 18 first team players that have left the team along with goalkeeping coach Aron Hyde who is probably the coaching equalivent of LGP in terms of being sent into the wilderness for not getting along with Frank de Boer.
Nagbe, Julian, LGP, Tito, Parkhurst are gone.
That’s three vital contributors who have been jettisoned, a player that has struggled with injury for two seasons but who could start for any team in MLS when healthy (you’ll notice that Tito was not sold to a competing MLS club), and a leader who retired but still put in solid performances in his appearances - all gone in 2020.
Disregard whatever spin this is getting, the facts are that this is a complete roster overhaul. Change and adjustments are always needed and expected in any organization. Specific roles need specific skillsets and finding the right ones are vital to success. However, looking at what Atlanta United needed and what it did going into this season shows that the team has effectively gone through a rebuild despite that fact that what it needed was to replace Parkhurst and Nagbe. Parky retired and the writing was on the wall about Nagbe since last preseason.
Perhaps the other moves are so unexpected because they really don’t seem necessary given how the final stretch of 2019 went. Sure, the spring was a disaster, there was a successful, but very ugly string of wins before the Gold Cup, the debacle in Chicago, but then what seemed like a player revolt in Seattle swung things in a totally new direction. However, when the breakneck pace that the players wanted brought success in August, the team managed to find balance between that and the more patient buildup style that Frank de Boer wanted in the playoffs. The result was a second place finish in the East and a conference final game that featured Miles Robinson not starting and a loss due a pair of wondergoals. That along with the two trophies adds up to a dramatic if not overall successful season.
Despite that success, going into the Concacaf Champions League kicking off the team still needs to replace vital pieces of the roster. If we’re being honest, in MLS roster spots 20-30 do not matter, spots 1-11 are vital (Nagbe, LGP, Gressel), 12-16 (Tito, Pogba, Meram) are just as important depth pieces, and 17-19 are where championship teams with clever front offices find gems that can put in big showings in key games (Mikey Ambrose, Pereira, Vazquez). While not every spot on the roster is going to end up being filled by an impact player, the team needs to find 5-7 players to fill important roles on the team, including resolving who starts on the wing and in central midfield.
Perhaps, with a new CBA coming, (or not, who knows?) the team has plans for spending extra money under a bigger salary cap - or will have to reduce spending under a somehow smaller one. Maybe they will need to cut spending in order to pay for Economy Comfort plane tickets, none of this is clear at this point. Whatever the reason, Atlanta United has gutted a roster that was a hair away from going to MLS Cup for the second year in a row and bringing in replacements has not gone to plan if the rumors about transfers to the team are true. For now, all that the team has to show for its trouble is what had once been a model of what the future of MLS could look like and replaced it with... well, nobody really knows yet.