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How should Atlanta United fill their forthcoming open Designated Player slot?

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So many needs for only one spot...

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Fans of Atlanta United were treated to further shock when the news broke on Wednesday that the club had agreed to sell Pity Martinez to Saudi club, Al-Nassr.

With their MLS is Back tournament failure, subsequent removal of Frank de Boer and a first-ever defeat to rivals Orlando City, it’s hardly been an easy couple of months for the Five Stripes.

Now, they have the task of refilling one of their Designated Player slots, with club president Darren Eales confirming that an $18 million deal was taking place and that it was something both the player and the club wanted.

“It was something the player wanted,” Eales said. “It was a chance for him, and he wanted to make that move. We’ll look to replace the DP slot in this window.

“In an ideal world, we’d want to do our business at the end of the season. But, for us, this was the right move for the club and the player. You have to be ready to move when this opportunity takes place.”

Eales also affirmed that Atlanta have not given up on success in the 2020 season and that they intend to bring in another Designated Player sooner rather than later to help them compete in MLS.

There is a myriad of problems with the Five Stripes’ roster in need of attention, from a lack of midfield control to finding a consistent goal scorer in the absence of Josef Martinez.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at a few areas where Atlanta United could use this valuable roster spot.

Creative midfielder

Given that Atlanta are losing one of their key creative pieces, it only seems prudent to start by analysing that role.

Pity’s time at the ‘Benz was plagued with inconsistencies as the Argentina international went from looking every inch a former South American Player of the Year one moment, to a confidence-stricken shell of a player the next.

However, it’s also true that no Atlanta United player has created more chances (84) or take-ons (82) in MLS than him since he joined the club from River Plate at the start of 2019, while his direct goal involvement tally of 17 (7 goals, 10 assists) is behind only Josef Martinez (28 goals, 3 assists) and Julian Gressel (8 goals, 12 assists) during that time. His is a hole that needs filling.

At his best, Pity was a player who could blow a game wide open with a defence-splitting pass, a wonder-strike at goal or even a late arrival into the box to get onto the end of a cross. Free of too much tactical responsibility, the 27-year-old had the ability to light up Atlanta United’s attack at any given moment, even if you felt like shaking him into doing so for 99% of a match.

Without him, and especially so while Josef Martinez is injured, the Five Stripes are left only with Ezequiel Barco as a bonafide game-changer, although the 21-year-old has hardly convinced on a consistent basis himself having scored 11 goals for the club so far.

Striker

As mentioned, since Josef Martinez picked up an ACL injury against Nashville way back in March, Atlanta United have lacked any form of reliable threat in front of goal and, well, to put it politely, they’ve suffered for it.

The Five Stripes have scored just five goals in eight competitive matches across all competitions since then while in the games that Josef played in at the start of the season, they netted six times in three matches.

Atlanta have tried a number of different options to try and stop the bleeding in the offensive third. Adam Jahn, for example, has played eight games so far but has managed a grand total of just three shots and one goal — granted it was a last-minute equaliser against Orlando — 101 touches of the ball and 57 completed passes. For context, Laurence Wyke has completed 49 passes in 89 minutes on the field. Some clever movement and that one goal aside, Jahn has been something of a non-event.

JJ Williams came off the bench during Atlanta’s disastrous 1-0 defeat to FC Cincinnati at the MLS is Back tournament but was sent off within minutes and has since been moved to the club’s USL team, while even Pity Martinez himself was deployed as a false nine by De Boer in a desperate attempt to generate something in the opposition box.

For now, the most likely player to occupy the centre-forward role is recent Mexican arrival, Cubo Torres. The 27-year-old has blown hot and cold throughout his career so far but does have 15 and 14-goal single-season totals to his name in the past for Chivas USA and Houston Dynamo.

Perhaps with a little match practice, Torres will find the sharpness to finish off a couple of the chances that have fallen his way so far but it’s safe to say he hasn’t covered himself in glory during the handful of appearances he’s made and the jury remains very much out.

Even if Torres finds his best form, he will be seen as nothing more than a plaster to cover for when Josef returns but given how difficult ACL injuries are to recover from, not going for a DP striker could be a huge gamble for the Atlanta Front Office.

Deep-lying midfielder

Finally, we come to a position which has divided opinion this season, but certainly stands out as a position of need for Atlanta United: deep-lying midfielder.

The off-season exodus from the Mercedes-Benz was painful for many to watch as the likes of Gressel, Tito Villalba and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez all left the club, while captain Michael Parkhurst retired. Each of those names means something special to supporters in their own right.

However, the departure which has arguably hit the team on the field the most is that of Darlington Nagbe, who fulfilled his ambition of returning to Ohio with Columbus Crew.

Nagbe is arguably the best American midfielder in MLS right now — if not the best in his position among all nationalities — and he is certainly showing it for the Crew.

Completely press-resistant, Nagbe is able to easily turn out of danger and distribute the ball forward, is always willing to come and receive form his centre-backs to move his side up the pitch quickly and methodically, and has proven himself as an intelligent and aggressive ball-winner time and again.

Oh, and then there’s the matter of his world-ending volley against Chicago Fire recently but at the risk of making you more emotional at thought of departed players, we’ll say no more on Nagbe.

What we will say, though, is Atlanta still have a serious problem in midfield.

Eric Remedi did a great job acting as the pivot during the Five Stripes’ 2-0 win over Nashville recently but that inability to be ambitious and progressive in possession — traits which clung to De Boer’s side throughout his stay — came back during their 3-1 defeat to Orlando and 0-0 draw with Inter Miami.

According to Fbref, ahead of their 1-1 draw with Orlando, Atlanta had completed the fourth-highest number of passes (3,770) this season, but ranked down in 13th when it comes to progressive distance achieved with those passes (21,945). Put simply, Atlanta pass for passing’s sake and lack a ball-player who can break lines from a deep position.

Matheus Rossetto has impressed so far and could be a temporary solution in that role, but he seems far more comfortable playing as a box-to-box midfielder, while Remedi seems better suited to playing alongside a partner and Jeff Larentowicz simply lacks the legs needed to sit in front of the defence on his own nowadays. A pairing of the two may work, but that is dependent on what system Stephen Glass and the future permanent head coach wants to put in place.

Atlanta were linked with Jonathan Gonzalez from Monterrey but back in mid-August, it was reported that he will remain in Mexico until at least January. Whether or not interest is ignited in him remains to be seen. Either way, one could easily argue that a confident No.6 would transform this team both with and without the ball.