On January 21, 2020, Atlanta United fans felt the knife twist. Again.
The team announced it had traded Julian Gressel. A starter in Atlanta United’s first competitive game against New York Red Bulls, a lethal right-sided player who scored 15 goals and supplied 35 assists in 3 years, and a charismatic voice at the training ground and in the locker room, Gressel was the last in a line of Atlanta United key players who’d been dispatched from the club during a hectic offseason. After Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra and club president Darren Eales ultimately decided to part with Gressel, Darlington Nagbe, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Tito Villalba — four key instruments to Tata Martino’s MLS Cup-wining side — the only certainty about Atlanta United in 2020 is that it’d feel different.
“We knew we were going to get absolutely hammered by the fan base, let’s be honest. We knew [backlash] was coming,” Bocanegra said in a conference call with reporters on the day of the Gressel trade. “There was a solution where we felt we’re getting a good return for him. We can utilize those funds and it will go into our greater plan.”
These days, Atlanta United fans are wondering about that greater plan. This time a year ago, the team was spring-boarding off of a U.S. Open Cup win and looking evermore sharp, aggressive, and well-rounded heading into the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs with a chance to repeat as champions.
Now a year on, those same fans see their mighty Five Stripes mired in misery near the bottom of the MLS table.
“If people want to have criticisms and anger, they can point that toward myself,” Bocanegra said in a press conference call Tuesday. “That’s fine. We need to do better.”
Unfortunately, the underlying stats are just as dismal as the results that have landed Atlanta United less than a handful points away from rock bottom of MLS. While there are certainly some legitimate reasons for a downturn — Josef Martinez missing the entire season chief among them — there’s nothing fake about what has happened. This isn’t bad luck. Since Pity Martinez’s departure, the team consistently creates merely a half a goal worth of chances per game and loses to bad teams at home.
Josef’s absence alone doesn’t explain the fact that, as Bocanegra pointed out when he last spoke with media last week, nine of the previous 12 goals Atlanta had conceded at that point had been from restarts of play — four of which have been with Atlanta United in possession of a throw-in or a corner.
And Atlanta United’s Venezuelan star striker has missed games before, yet the team still managed to create chances and at least score some goals. Last season, Josef missed five regular season games — four of which were road matches — and the team still managed to score seven goals in those games. It’s no great shakes, and the team only picked up four points in those five matches, but it’s better than the team’s current pace — scoring 13 goals in 14 league games this season.
“We’re accountable with who we bring in,” Bocanegra said last Tuesday before turning his ire toward some of longer-tenured team members. “The players that have been here ... six or seven guys that we’ve had on championship teams are not playing up to the level that we expect of them to play. That also needs to change.”
It’s not the coach
There’s a very reasonable temptation to blame the team’s form since August on interim manager Stephen Glass and be done with it. Just as there was a very reasonable temptation to blame the performances before this period on Frank de Boer. The literature on this is more cautious though. Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanki’s famous book “Soccernomics” found that a team’s wage bill (a loose proxy for the player talent level of a team) explained 89% of the variation in league positions of their clubs in England from 1998 to 2007 (and 92% before that from 1978-1997). In essence — and this may seem obvious — the thing that dictates the success of a team is the quality of its roster. Managers, support staff, training ground amenities, and the rest of it all have a part to play in a team’s on-field success, but mainly on the margins.
With this rule of thumb in place, you can squint and picture how:
- The very strong 2018 team coached by the very strong Tata Martino won MLS Cup, transitioned into
- a quite strong 2019 team coached by a possibly-below-average Frank de Boer that struggled at times but comfortably made the playoffs and lifted the U.S. Open Cup, then gave way to
- a much weaker 2020 roster (more on this below) coached by the same manager and looked very average, followed by
- an even weaker 2020 team (after Pity Martinez’s sale, Barco knocks) coached by a young manager being baptized in fire in Stephen Glass, and now looks like one of the worst teams in the league.
So if the team’s struggles are mostly a function of the roster and not the coach, then this team needs to be rebuilt in the offseason. There needs to be a rebuild. Luckily, Atlanta United’s front office has some experience doing this.
Very recently, in fact, when they turned over roughly half of the minutes heading into 2020.
For the 2020 season, San Jose, NYCFC, and Toronto lead the way, returning players accounting for 90% of minutes played. Chicago is only returning 51%. https://t.co/IzwiUd6LYI pic.twitter.com/toN4nYpJx1— Eliot McKinley (@etmckinley) February 4, 2020
At the close of the 2019 season, Atlanta United’s roster was stacked pretty deep.
- FW: Josef Martinez, Brandon Vazquez
- AM: Ezequiel Barco, Pity Martinez, Tito Villalba, Andrew Carleton
- WB/FB: Justin Meram, Julian Gressel, George Bello, Mikey Ambrose, Dion Pereira
- CM: Darlington Nagbe, Emerson Hyndman, Jeff Larentowicz, Eric Remedi, Mo Adams
- CB: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Miles Robinson, Franco Escobar, Michael Parkhurst, Florentin Pogba
We’re not privy to all of the contractual difficulties that may have lay in wait for the front office in the offseason ahead of 2020 and the MLSPA is yet to release the latest wages report, but what happened next can only be described as the front office blowing up the team.
- Julian Gressel, the team assist leader and second leading goal scorer was traded for cap space that was at least partially spent on Brooks Lennon.
- Darlington Nagbe, an elite one-of-a-kind midfield metronome was traded for cap space that was spent on Emerson Hyndman. We don’t know exactly what went down with Nagbe in the January 2019 camp when we heard he was trying to force a trade, but it was at least reported that Nagbe left Portland originally looking for a significant raise (up to 7 figures), and we know for a fact that Atlanta United did not give that to him upon his arrival. We also know per Doug Roberson at the AJC that Atlanta offered him a new contract mid-2019 season, but it appears whatever issues had emerged were unreconcilable by this point.
- Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, an elite ball-playing center back and fearless, aggressive defender was sold, with the proceeds presumably going toward Fernando Meza.
- Tito Villalba, a top 5 winger of the TAM era, who has bagged a goal or an assist every other game or better basically his entire career, was sold, with the proceeds ... I don’t know, eventually going to Jurgen Damm? Matheus Rossetto?
- The greatest MLS center back of all time, Michael Parkhurst retired, and was basically replaced by Anton Walkes.
- Justin Meram was allowed to walk. He was good, but maybe that was fine. George Bello is finally ready and healthy and has easily been the team’s best player.
- Pity Martinez being sold to Al-Nassr for reportedly enough money to profit off the original transfer fee is a different, but related case. We will likely find out in the coming months whether Marcelino Moreno is a better choice to fill that third DP spot.
How did all of this go? Not great! It’s easy to forget, because the manager was “mutually-parted-ways”-ed midseason, and that caused a lot of noise. But there’s a reason Frank de Boer was able to put it together competently in 2019 and not at all in 2020, and there’s a reason that the interim manager isn’t doing any better than Frank did with the same players.
This reason is not just Josef’s injury either. After all, other MLS teams are also without Josef Martinez and they seem to do just fine scoring goals, many of them against Atlanta. And other teams are missing DPs also. Since August, Atlanta’s only opponent that has had three designated players available was the Chicago Fire.
The real reason Atlanta United is struggling to score goals is that in the 2020 offseason, the Atlanta United roster got demonstrably worse, provable in any number of ways. Frankly, it doesn’t take a ton of hard evidence when you honestly reflect and go down through the names.
But while we’re here, let’s drive the point home.
Atlanta United shipped off a ton of goals in the offseason
In soccer, it’s notoriously difficult to put a number on a player’s total contribution to the game. You might find that goals scored or expected goals scored are decent enough proxies for a striker, or that assists or expected assists give you a good feeling for an attacking midfielder’s or winger’s contribution to providing service to the striker. In general you might find that goals and assists together are a pretty good measure of the overall output of a player in the front four, but games are won and lost in the other two thirds of the field as well. What about the player who hits the line-splitting pass to get the ball to the No. 10 in a dangerous space? And what if a player is scoring tons of goals but he’s also giving the ball away constantly in bad areas. What if he’s a danger to his team, as they say?
American Soccer Analysis has developed what might be the best public attempt at a statistic to capture the whole thing. It’s still largely missing off-ball movement which is a big part of the game, but this new metric called “Goals Added” or “g+” rates every single on-ball action performed by a player. This effectively scores the lion's share of the part of the game you can see on the TV. For a more thorough explanation of how g+ works, ASA has it all laid out here, but just know that a score of 0 is a league average rating, with scores in the positive digits representing a player who makes the team better than with an average player in that position, and vice versa.
In the offseason between 2019 and 2020, while the front office offloaded roughly half of the 2019 minutes, it also offloaded most of the good players as measured by “goals added,” and it did not replace them well.
The above chart shows each Atlanta United player (seasons with over 450 minutes) in franchise history, and their contribution in terms of “goals added above the average player” on a per 96 minute basis. Players tagged yellow in 2019 are players that would go on to leave the club in the offseason and players tagged yellow in 2020 were the “replacements.”
As you let this sink in, it becomes much harder to square some of the rhetoric coming from Bocanegra recently as he explains the situation to both media and fans.
“We know we have good players on the roster,” Bocanegra told media last Tuesday. “They know it. We know it. We’re all holding our hands up. But we still believe in these guys, and now we’re able to add a few more pieces.”
And yet, two days later in a virtual town hall for season ticket holders, Bocanegra explained that the team effectively leveraged as many financial/budget resources as it could muster to reinforce the 2018 team knowing they had a chance to win a championship. But the technical director then admitted that in doing so, the team ran out of rope, forcing drastic changes to the squad ahead of this season. The recording of the town hall is not currently available to the public and could not be provided to Dirty South Soccer upon request by time of publishing.
Franco Escobar analyzed the state of the roster after Atlanta’s 4-2 loss to Nashville SC, saying in a video conference during the week (through an interpreter):
“We have to be realistic. We realize we lost a lot of starters from last year. And then Josef gets injured and we’ve lost Pity now. So it’s a very young team. — practically a new team, with a lot of new players. And we’re also adapting to the coaching change with Glassy. So now we’re trying to regain the form that we want.”
What to make of it all
Without knowing exactly how operations within the front office and recruitment team are set up, it’s hard to know exactly who shoulders blame for Atlanta United’s dismal 2020 season. But we do know who ultimately takes responsibility.
“If people want to have criticisms and anger, they can point that toward myself,” Bocanegra told reporters last week. “That’s fine. We need to do better. Everybody here is accountable on the field, myself included.”
If the club’s most high-profile executives in Eales and Bocanegra are the highly effective visionary leaders we have believed them to be, then behind closed doors, they are surely blaming themselves as well.
And perhaps they’ve earned a mistake or two. One could imagine that after two straight years of unprecedented success (throw half of a third year in there for good measure), that a certain confidence might arise in one’s own instincts when it comes to major personnel decisions. Perhaps what is needed now is for the club’s player recruitment process to (re)turn to a more structured analytical philosophy, a team effort where all of the insights generated by the club’s performance analysts, scouts, coaches, and capologists, are fully empowered to help the leaders of the club make the best possible decisions.
The 2020 rebuild was not a success. Perhaps leadership has earned a second shot at it for 2021, but should this one go similarly, we might not say the same about a third.