Atlanta United begins its fourth season of play on February 29th against MLS newcomers Nashville SC. Much has changed in MLS since Atlanta United made its own league debut in 2017, but this past offseason has seen the most change for the roster in the club’s short history. The moving-on of players who have been stalwarts in the side since that inaugural season caught many by surprise, especially considering how the 2019 season ended.
How did they finish 2019?
For all the ups and downs of Frank de Boer’s first year in charge, Atlanta United came up agonizingly short of hosting its second consecutive MLS Cup. The club was caught on the wrong end of two wonder strikes that saw Toronto FC claim a lucky victory in Atlanta. Despite United winning two trophies in 2019, many players expressed their disappointment in how the season had unfolded and frustration in the way that it had come to its conclusion.
It is not hard then to understand why so many fans have been caught off guard by an off-season of change that saw an overhaul of the roster that again was just 45 minutes away from hosting another MLS Cup. 2020 will be filled with more questions than any season since the club’s first. Gone are the likes of Julian Gressel, Tito Villalba, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Darlington Nagbe, and club captain Michael Parkhurst. All contributed significantly to the success of Atlanta United in their time with the club and replacing their production as well as their leadership in the dressing room will be difficult. Role players such as Justin Meram, Florentin Pogba, Dion Pereira, Mikey Ambrose, Brek Shea, and Brandon Vazquez. These players will be easier to replace but are still apart of what has been a significant roster shakeup.
As far as new faces go there are plenty. Fernando Meza arrived from Liga MX side Necaxa as a replacement for the departing LGP. He will be counted on immediately to step into the side and bring a calming presence to the backline. Emerson Hyndman’s loan from Bournemouth has been made permanent and he will have a larger role in this year’s team given the trade of Darlington Nagbe to Columbus. Edgar Castillo has been brought in to provide depth at the left back spot with Brooks Lennon doing the same on the right. Lennon has the ability to play in a variety of positions on the right, but will have large shoes to fill given the consistent productivity that fan favorite Julian Gressel provided during his time in Atlanta. Anton Walkes has been brought back to Atlanta but on a permanent basis this time. He will be relied upon to provide depth across multiple positions and his flexibility could prove vital as the season progresses. Jake Mulraney has arrived from Hearts in Scotland and will provide depth on both wings. Manuel Castro has been taken on a short term loan from Argentine side Estudiantes, but at the time of writing his work permit has yet to be finalized. Forward Adam Jahn was bought from USL side Phoenix Rising to provide depth for Josef Martinez at the striker position, but will also give a different option off the bench in terms of his physical presence and aerial ability. Perhaps the most exciting arrival is that of midfielder Matheus Rossetto from Club Athletico Paranaense. He offered a glimpse of his ability in the preseason friendly against Birmingham Legion and fans are waiting to see what he can add to the side against tougher opposition. However, like Castro, he too is having issues securing his work visa.
What’s the new jersey?
Another new edition for the 2020 season will be Atlanta United’s new secondary kit. After two years of service, the “King Peach’’ kit has been retired and aptly titled “King’s Kit” has taken its place. The Five Stripes’ new threads stick with MLS’s trend of white secondary jerseys, but adds some Atlanta flair in its gold accents and subtle Five Stripe design. Here’s to hoping that Atlanta United can win as many games in its new threads as it did in the departed King Peach.
Who’s the coach?
2020 will be Frank de Boer’s second season in charge of Atlanta United. His first season had some highs in the two cup wins but also some very frustrating lows. The team bordered on mutiny in July of 2019 which saw de Boer change tactics back to the 3-5-2. This saw the Five Stripes turn their form around and also led to the two aforementioned cup successes. This season, de Boer will be expected to put more of his stamp on the team in terms of style. This has already been seen in the transfer business the club conducted in the offseason.
2020 is a vital year for Frank de Boer. He has earned some time and patience with the fans for how last season ended, but that could evaporate quickly if results and performances don’t come. That being said, if the team makes visible progress and reaches their own lofty goals, it will go a long way to helping Frank de Boer reestablish his reputation as a top level coach.
How will summer tournaments impact the squad?
Summer tournaments are always a lot of fun. That is, unless you’re a fan of an MLS team that relies upon players who represent their countries at an international level. This year Atlanta United will have to traverse two tournaments that have the potential to affect the squad. Copa America returns again for the second consecutive summer. The most likely candidate to be called up will be Josef Martinez if he decides that he wants to represent Venezuela again. He publicly stated after last year’s tournament that he wouldn’t play again until the manager at the time was gone. Well that manager has indeed departed his post opening up the way for Josef to return La Vinotinto. The second tournament that is likely to have a greater impact on the squad is the Olympics. It is widely assumed that Ezequiel Barco will represent Argentina, but due to Olympic rules that allow three players over the age of 23 to be in the squad it is conceivable that Pity Martinez could represent Argentina as well. The United States have not yet qualified for the tournament but should they do so it is highly likely that Miles Robinson could be called up to take place in the tournament given his U-23 status. The timing of the Olympics could see any players called up miss 4-5 matches depending on how their teams fare in the tournament.
What formation will they usually play?
Another thing that fans will be keeping an eye on in 2020 will be how Atlanta United line up. The preseason saw the Five Stripes almost exclusively play 3-4-3, which was interesting given that same formation’s failings at the beginning of the 2019 season. However, due to injuries and players being unavailable, Atlanta United lined up in a 4-3-3 for their Concacaf Champions League opener against FC Motagua in Honduras. The 3-5-2, meanwhile, has been synonymous with winning trophies as it has been the formation that Atlanta United lined up in for all of their cup victories and the formation the team wanted to switch back to last season when they were struggling. What will happen this year? I guess we will have to wait and see.
What are our expectations?
As far as expectations go, not much will realistically change. Most fans accept that the team isn’t good enough to win the Champions League. Winning the U.S. Open Cup in 2019 was nice and fans will never complain about winning silverware, but the goal will always be MLS Cup. Atlanta United came close in 2019 but ultimately came up one game short of hosting the final. Winning the Supporters’ Shield would also be exciting, but many fans either don’t care about its significance or don’t think that it accurately portrays the best team in the league with MLS having an unbalanced schedule. Come the end of the 2020 season Atlanta United will be judged on one thing: did it win MLS Cup?
How will Concacaf Champions League affect the team? How hard will they go after it?
Atlanta United made it clear before the 2019 season that they would like to be the first MLS side to win the Champions League in its current form. Those expectations have been somewhat tempered this season. Atlanta United will give everything it has to win the competition, but a potential second round matchup with Club America could see the Five Stripes exit the competition at the same point in time as 2019.
Player to Watch
Josef Martinez. It seems a simple answer but when a team has a player like him, it can go a long way. Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez are both key players, but if Josef is scoring, then Atlanta United is likely winning. Getting him the ball in dangerous positions will be a priority for Frank de Boer and losing the quality service that came from Julian Gressel will be difficult to replace.
What’s the biggest concern for this season?
How will the team gel after such sweeping roster turnover? There are a lot of new faces wearing red, black, and gold this season. Given the team’s shortened preseason due to the Champions League—as well as multiple visa related issues that have delayed some players from training or playing with the team—Atlanta United will not have as much developed chemistry entering the season as it has had in the past. There are also still questions over the depth at left back, center back, and central midfield that need to be addressed either through improved performances and development by players already in the squad or through future transfers. As far as the squad goes, the 2020 edition of Atlanta United has the most question marks around it since the club’s inaugural season in 2017.
How much will this roster change after the season starts?
As far as departures go, the biggest question mark will be around the future of Ezequiel Barco. Should he start the season strongly and take that form into the Olympics with Argentina, there is the potential for a big money summer move towards the end of the transfer window in August/September. Any other changes to the roster will likely come in the form of new signings, whether they are trades from within MLS or signings from outside of the league.
Who’s the player fans will learn to love?
Pity Martinez. The Argentine was a slightly divisive player in his first season for Atlanta United after his big money move from River Plate. The former South American Player of the Year came in with a lot of hype and struggled to get adjusted to living in a new country and playing in a new league. He really began showing some good form as the season drew to a close and was arguably Atlanta United’s best player in the Eastern Conference Final defeat to Toronto. Pity Martinez has stated his desire to play in Europe one day, and 2020 will be a pivotal season in determining whether or not he makes that jump. If he can put up the type of numbers and performances that he is capable of, Atlanta United will be a much stronger team for it, and the fans will finally start to love him the way he was loved at River Plate.