Identity. It’s something that a team and a fanbase can hold on to. It’s an unmistakable way of playing that has been drilled into a team by its head coach. Creating an identity takes time. It’s molded through training sessions and tough preseasons. Atlanta United begins its fourth season of play and second season under Frank de Boer in under a week when it travels to Honduras to play FC Motagua and it has a worrying question hanging over its head: what is Atlanta United’s identity?
The Five Stripes finished preseason with a rather frustrating and disappointing 0-0 draw in Mexico to second division side Leones Negros. Although the trip was meant to simulate a Champions League away leg and focus on getting fit before the season opener, the result is still troubling. Not because of the scoreline, but because of the way the team performed. Even after the hosts had made large scale changes at halftime Atlanta United struggled to break them down and could even consider themselves lucky not to have been behind. Josef Martinez barely got involved outside of calmly dispatching his penalty in the shootout, something none of his teammates could manage to do.
Playing in a 3-4-3 that was similarly ineffective this time last season, Atlanta United seemed to be without any ideas. There were numerous occasions when the backline had no options ahead of them to pass the ball, no way to advance the team up the pitch. Even when the ball managed to find its way into the final third there was often no incisive or connected passing into the box. No dangerous balls for Josef to attack. This is a worrying sign given that this was the final friendly of the preseason against a team that Atlanta United has more than enough quality to dispatch. Fitness and altitude aside the Five Stripes should at least be showing some sort of familiarity with the system that they are playing. There was no sign of that Tuesday night.
Before the preseason even started there were questions being asked about the team that was being assembled. Players who had been with the team since its inaugural season departed and the names that were replacing them left a lot to be desired. Julian Gressel, one of the best wingbacks in the league, was traded to Eastern Conference rival DC United after a protracted contract standoff. Leandro Gonzales Pirez was sold to Liga MX’s side Club Tijuana. Club captain Michael Parkhurst retired. Tito Villalba was sold after being told he wouldn’t feature heavily in de Boer’s plans for the upcoming season. All of these players were sold and replacements brought in, but the quality of those signings will be tested and tested quickly.
The biggest problem the team faced was replacing midfielder Darlington Nagbe, easily the most irreplaceable of all of the departures. Nagbe is the type of player that allows a team to play with two midfielders because of his extraordinary qualities. He is fantastic on the ball and covers incredible amounts of ground. If you don’t have a player who can do both of those things you are going to struggle playing with just two players in the middle of the park. Put simply, Nagbe was doing the jobs of two players by himself. Replacing him in a like for like fashion was always going to be nearly impossible. That being said there are ways to account for his absence, most notably in how the team uses its current assets in a way that brings the best out of them. There is absolutely no scenario in this writer’s mind that can see Atlanta United playing successfully with a midfield two.
This brings things nicely onto head coach Frank de Boer. After a first season that saw Atlanta United start very slowly but ended with two cup victories, de Boer will be expected to not repeat the same mistakes he made last year. He has admitted to trying to change too much too quickly last preseason, and after the team bordered on revolt, he changed tactics halfway through the season. This change saw United win it’s first ever U.S. Open Cup and defeat Mexican powerhouse Club America in the Campeones Cup. Unlucky injuries and two wonder goals saw Atlanta United fall just short of hosting its second consecutive MLS Cup but questions about de Boer’s game management and tactical decisions remained.
What does Frank de Boer want his Atlanta United side to look like? What does he want them to play like? After a full offseason in charge and more input into the construction of the roster, fans would be right to expect a more cohesive and fluid style of play in de Boer’s second season. Unfortunately, that has so far not materialized. Many fans are left perplexed by the attempt to play 3-4-3 again after the much publicized struggles of the formation last season. The personnel currently at the club seem unsuited to playing in this system and the perceived commitment to it is all the more curious given de Boer’s own personal history playing a 4-3-3 in his successful stint at Ajax. This uncertainty in system is reflected by the lack of clear passing movements and buildup play that should be expected at this point in a coaches tenure.
Not everything is on Frank de Boer though. The front office has put itself firmly in the firing line with the way it has handled this offseason. As previously discussed, big name players have departed and for sizable sums of money. However they haven’t been replaced with players that appear to be of the same caliber. Selling players is good for business only as long as you replace them. The signing of Matheus Rossetto from Brazil looks to be a shrewd piece of business given his sparkling cameo in the match against Birmingham Legion. Outside of his arrival, many of the new signings seem to be backup players and depth signings which is concerning given the players who departed featured heavily in the starting XI last season.
What does the front office of Atlanta United want? What did it agree to in terms of its playing philosophy when it hired Frank de Boer? According to the team and how it marketed itself to fans, Atlanta United was all about fast paced and attacking soccer. Right now the team doesn’t look like either of those things, and de Boer himself has commented on how he would like for his team to play quicker with the ball. In order to succeed, the manager has to be given the players he needs to play the system he wants. From what has been seen so far this preseason it looks as if de Boer does not have the players he needs. That failure falls on the front office.
The lack of quality would be somewhat palatable if de Boer had a clear method of playing that the players could buy into. When a good coach has a clear methodology they have the ability to get the team to play better than the sum of its parts. Take Matías Almeyda at San Jose Earthquakes for example. He has a clear lack of talent compared to other MLS sides, yet he gets his side to outperform expectations because every player knows their role and what to do in his system. One can only imagine what he would give to have the attacking talents of Josef Martinez, Pity Martinez, and Ezequiel Barco. Bob Bradley, for all of his faults, knows exactly how he wants his LAFC side to play. He also knows how to get the ball to his best players in positions where they can succeed. Atlanta United currently don’t do either of these things. There is no clear understanding of how the team is supposed to play and more often than not the best players on the team are not getting the ball in positions where they can hurt the opposition.
Given that the expectations for a team of Atlanta United’s size and arrogance, these issues are worrying. The club itself champions all of the things that make it better than everyone else in MLS. From being the first team to have 1 million followers on Twitter to releasing its new secondary kit that has been titled the “King’s Kit,” Atlanta United is knowingly posturing itself as being better than everyone else. One thing that it doesn’t have over the rest of the league: a clear way of playing. If that could be resolved with the resources Atlanta United has, it could reasonably be expected to compete for top honors every season and truly establish itself as better than the rest both on and off the pitch.
The problem with arrogance is what happens when it isn’t backed up with results. Hubris can be one hell of a wake up call. Atlanta United has talent, it has a rabid fanbase, and it has a world class venue that routinely boasts world class crowds. Being the best at everything off the pitch is great but being the best on the pitch is what matters most. What Atlanta United doesn’t have is an identity on the pitch and if it doesn’t establish that sooner rather than later, nothing else will matter. Soccer is a results-based business and everyone — from the front office, to Frank de Boer, to the players on the pitch — will be held accountable if the results don’t come. Atlanta United needs to discover its identity and it needs to do it fast.