If you were lucky enough to have to work or overslept your alarm clock on Thursday, you missed the worst professional soccer match of the pandemic era. Atlanta United, in perhaps their worst performance in 3.5 years of existence, lost 1-0 to putrid FC Cincinnati to all but be eliminated from the MLS is Back tournament.
Usually, I try to make these post-match thoughts sessions as rational and calm as possible. Twitter is for hot-headed and rash takes, not this great community we’ve worked hard to build. However, when a match has zero redeeming aspects to point out, there is nothing left but the toxic and negative. So, instead of going through every facet of one of the worst soccer matches to ever take place on planet earth, I’m going to attempt to figure out how one of the leagues most exciting and dynamic teams has transitioned swiftly into a dull laughingstock.
First and foremost, the obvious excuse the most forgiving critic will throw out there is the absence of Josef Martinez. Of course missing your best player for a long period of time is going to hurt. However, when one player goes missing and the entire structure falls to rubble there were underlying issues the whole time.
Without Josef, the current team as it stands is completely rudderless. With two of the three high-priced designated players still playing, the whole starting eleven seems willing to stand around waiting for someone to grab the game by the horns and make things happen. Pity Martinez’s struggle to be a dynamic force in MLS has been compounded by Josef’s injury. And while we all can agree that Ezequiel Barco is immensely talented, he’s just not the type of player who can dominate a match and be the driving force that the team needs at the moment.
Placing blame for the current struggles is a difficult task. Frank de Boer’s tactics and his insistence on playing a certain style is clearly not working. His unwillingness to switch up his mentality after losing the team’s most critical piece cannot be blamed on anyone but him. But, it’s not exactly fair to shove 100 percent of the blame in his direction.
The club’s decision makers made the bold decision to drastically overhaul the roster after the 2019 season. Part of this was out of necessity with the constraints of MLS’s salary cap pushing them to make tough decisions. However, not every move seemed necessary.
When you make as many changes within the roster as Carlos Bocanegra and company have made and nearly all of the exchanges in talent have been big downgrades, consequences are to be expected. Evaluating every transaction move for move and it’s clear that this group of players is significantly weaker than the squad De Boer had to select from last season. With the arguable exception of Fernando Meza replacing Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, every like for like replacement was a step down.
The evidence of this weaker squad is easy to see just by looking at the starting lineup against FC Cincinnati. Adam Jahn and Jake Mulraney were brought in as depth players and wouldn’t look out of place in the ATL UTD 2 lineup. Both players starting a critical match in what was advertised as an important tournament is proof that this team’s roster is lacking in quality.
In the past when Josef Martinez or Miguel Almiron went down with injuries there was always fallback options to pick up the slack. Whether it was Yamil Asad, Julian Gressel, Tito Villalba or even the likes of Romario Williams and Brandon Vazquez to a lesser degree. The depth was there to tread water. No matter what the excuses are, be it financial or evaluating talent, it’s clear that mistakes in building this roster have been made.
The transfer dealings of the club aside, it’s the manager’s job to work with what’s available to them. Teams like the Red Bulls, Crew, Earthquakes and Toronto FC all work within the same financial constraints and have holes in their roster. De Boer’s stubbornness of carrying on with his intricate 3-4-3 system with the current pool of players is no one’s fault but his own.
Atlanta United’s failure in this makeshift tournament isn’t a death knell for their season (if there is a season) but it’s becoming abundantly clear that there are real problems that go beyond being “unlucky” and missing one player. This club has built itself on the supposed ethos of being elite. Early promises of being attacking and fun to watch were delivered on tenfold. Unfortunately that entertaining identity has devolved into a mundane shell of its once glorious self that is nothing more than ordinary at best. A good run of form at the right time and a couple of shiny trophies has only sugar-coated what has been a bad apple of a situation.