In the wake of their humiliation at the MLS is Back tournament, it has become clear that Atlanta United are in a state of flux.
Since joining Major League Soccer in 2017, the Five Stripes have created a culture and, indeed, delivered silverware at a rate few in this league have ever seen.
However, as alluded to in an article by our very own J. Sam Jones, the club now finds itself at a crossroads, where the erosion of that culture has to be reversed and Atlanta rediscovers itself. At the risk of repeating ourselves, we won’t dig too deeply into that here.
The front office will now look to reconnect more intimately with the fanbase and whoever eventually occupies the dugout recently vacated by Frank de Boer will have serious work to do on the pitch.
It goes without saying that Atlanta United endured a disastrous winter transfer window which saw club stalwarts such as Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Darlington Nagbe sold, while Michael Parkhurst retired and squad players such as Justin Meram and Brandon Vazquez were moved on without adequately being replaced.
But if MLS is Back shone a glaring light on anything, it’s that Atlanta are totally unequipped for life without the injured Josef Martinez or the guy who used to service him, Julian Gressel, who was among that deluge of talent to leave Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
To give credit where it’s due, the front office has been proactive in addressing the fact Atlanta failed to score a goal in Orlando with the signing of Erick “Cubo” Torres from Liga MX side Club Tijuana.
Cubo joins fellow Mexican Jurgen Damm as another recent major arrival at Atlanta, and on the face of it, this very much feels like the club are trying to recreate the Josef-Gressel dynamic which brought so much success during Atlanta’s first three seasons of existence. Indeed, across the 2018 and 2019 regular seasons combined, Gressel assisted a Martinez goal on no fewer than 15 occasions. No partnership was more prolific in MLS during that time.
So, can this pair of Mexico internationals really cure Atlanta United’s goalscoring illness for 2020? Let’s take a look.
Can Cubo call upon his MLS experience?
Despite picking up seven senior caps for the Mexican national team, Cubo’s career feels like something of a mixed bag.
The 27-year-old has spent his entire career in either Liga MX or Major League Soccer and in the former, his goalscoring record leaves much to be desired.
To date, Cubo has managed just 20 goals in 103 Liga MX appearances, with his most prolific campaign in the Mexican top flight coming during the 2011/12 season when he bagged seven times for Guadalajara. MLS may be developing at a rapid rate but there’s still no question that Liga MX is the superior league and his record at this higher level of competition should be worrying.
That said, Atlanta aren’t really looking for over-arching solutions at a continental level, given they already trail Club America 3-0 in their Concacaf Champions League quarter-final clash. Therefore, his record in MLS should fill Five Stripes fans with more confidence.
During his initial foray into the league with Chivas USA between 2013 and 2014, Cubo managed an impressive 22 goals in 45 games across all competitions for a team that has gone down as one of the biggest disasters in MLS history.
His second spell in MLS with Houston Dynamo didn’t get off to the best of starts, with Cubo failing to score in his first 22 league games, but following the appointment of Wilmer Cabrera as manager, the 27-year-old exploded into life, netting 14 times in 27 league matches during the 2017 season.
Cubo himself attributed this turnaround to feeling valued as part of the squad and playing under a manager who understands his abilities.
“Wilmer Cabrera is a coach that understands the player,” he told Goal in 2017. “He talks with me, I know what he wants on and off the field. Yet, what allows him to get the best out of me is that he has confidence in me.
“He’s one of the few coaches that has trusted me, that understands me and [whom] I understand. That’s what makes him so good. When someone makes you feel that you are good at your job, makes you feel valued, that makes you want to give your best.”
Although Cubo has admittedly struggled somewhat since moving back to Liga MX, scoring just four league goals in 25 appearances combined for Cruz Azul, Pumas and Tijuana, it’s clear he understands how to find goals in MLS.
He doesn’t quite have that all-consuming need to win which we all love about Josef Martinez, but there are similarities in his approach to link-up play and finishing in and around the box which should make him a decent stop-gap until the Venezuelan returns to action.
Furthermore, he will be pushed for competition by Paraguayan youngster, Erik Lopez — a player described by Paraguayan football expert Roberto Rojas as “very quick, very technical and with an eye for goal” — who was recently acquired from Olimpia and will be loaned to the Five Stripes from ATL UTD 2 for the rest of the season.
Erik López on his move to #MLS:— Felipe Cardenas (@FelipeCar) August 4, 2020
“ATLUTD 2 acquired me because of a roster space issue, but they’ll loan me to the first team for 6 months. I’ll go straight to the first team, at least that’s what my agent and #ATLUTD’s sporting director explained to me.” https://t.co/n1ug4pN7h7
Will Damm supply the goods?
George Bello was very promising during MLS is Back, while the likes of Brooks Lennon and Jake Mulraney have shown flashes of ingenuity in the final third, but none of have demonstrated enough consistency or skill to suggest they can match the incredible output seen from Gressel at Atlanta United.
The German was a fantastic utility man but whether he liked it or not, often thrived most in the wing-back position, supplying the ammunition to Martinez in the box with incredible regularity. To lose a player who provided 35 assists across 107 MLS appearances was always going to hurt and all the signs now point to Damm being the guy tasked with replicating that output.
Former USMNT international Herculez Gomez — now working as an analyst for ESPN — concedes that Damm has been frustrating with his end product so far and suffers from the pressure put upon him by fans and pundits alike.
“That’s been very much what defined him in Liga MX, is that finished product. Can he put that good service in?” he told mlssoccer.com.
“We had him on our show [‘Ahora o Nunca’] a few weeks ago, and he said mentally it’s affected him, where he knows that the fans, the pundits are going to talk about his crossing, how inaccurate he’s been at times, and it’s affected him.”
However, he also stresses that Damm’s pace can strike fear into the hearts of opposition defenders, that his speed offers the Five Stripes a totally different weapon and that the player himself is desperate for a chance to prove his doubters wrong.
“When he’s running on all cylinders, you won’t see a faster player with the ability to bring the ball down into speed in the final third than him, with the ability to take advantage of that open space,” Gomez said.
He added: “He’s a player that, under the right circumstances, has tons of quality, has intangibles that you rarely see in in Liga MX or in MLS. But it’s about putting it together, it’s about having the confidence. He had some issues in Liga MX that were pretty much confidence issues.”
Gomez went on to suggest Damm will be best suited to playing as a wing-back for Atlanta United, using that pace to run into the open field from deep. If Atlanta’s next manager favors a counter-attacking system, this would make the Mexican international an incredibly dangerous weapon. If the direct dribbling and offensive skills of Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez can be harnessed alongside him, we could see a return to that relentless approach which wowed supporters during Atlanta’s first two MLS campaigns.
Despite all the qualities at Damm’s disposal — and the impressive $10m price-tag it took for Tigres to prize him away from Pachuca in 2015 — it’s important to remember that this is a player with just 11 goals and 22 assists to his name in 165 league appearances in Mexico.
However, what is clear from both he and Cubo is that they’re flawed talents just looking to be loved by a club and its fanbase, and desperately seeking a chance of approval. What is more, they’re both at an age where they can wrestle themselves back into international contention and that will undoubtedly be a huge motivator.
No league is quite as good at elevating the imperfect as Major League Soccer and arguably no club in MLS has a more committed fanbase than Atlanta United.
If both players hit the ground running, they’ll quickly feel the love of the supporters and that is exactly what the powers that be at the club will be hoping for as they seek to put a plaster over the Five Stripes’ gaping attacking wounds.