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Four thoughts on the state of Atlanta United heading into the 2021 offseason

Progress was made, but there’s a ways to go.

SOCCER: AUG 15 MLS - LAFC at Atlanta United FC Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Another Atlanta United season has come and gone with mixed results and an array of emotions. I decided it was best to let some time pass after the NYCFC playoff match before signing off with my thoughts column for the year. Let’s face it, there’s not much positive to say about that match and there was no point in being reactionary after such a poor showing and bitter ending to what was a complicated season. Instead, I felt it would be wise to take the week to cool off and come back with some final thoughts on the overall season itself and what the team needs to do in the offseason to improve upon what it has started to build in 2021.

With a Whimper

The Five Stripes run officially came to an end on Sunday with a 2-0 loss to NYCFC at the super snug confines of Yankee Stadium. If you’ve been reading my thoughts and opinions on soccer at all, you’ll know I’m not one for excuses. Yes, the baseball field and horrendous parameters of the playing field in the Bronx is a complete laughingstock. However, the truth of the matter is, the better team won. NYCFC deserved to win and they got the job done with relative ease.

Frankly, the early playoff exit didn’t come as much of a surprise to me. While it’s true that the club had a very good record over the final few months of the season under Rob Valentino and Gonzalo Pineda, I felt like the team really sputtered during the final stretch of matches. They played an extremely forgiving schedule and really struggled to put together consistent attacking performances. They dropped valuable points when they easily should’ve strolled to victories. Even on the final day of the season they needed an absolute world-class goal to beat the two-time Wooden Spoon “winners”. You can spout the second half record to me all you want, this team just wasn’t very good in the end and the proof was there for us all to see in that playoff match.

The Diagnosis

Before fixing any issues you must first identify what they actually are. Atlanta United’s insufficiencies are very complex to pinpoint. It seems clear to me that Gonzalo Pineda is a fine coach both tactically and inspirationally. He appears to fit the role and knows what he’s doing. The roster is extremely talented from an individual perspective. With the addition of Luiz Araujo there are dynamic skill players in every attacking spot. The defense is filled with top performers and the midfield is no slouch either. But we can all agree that the premium components assembled by the front office didn’t produce the desired outcome.

The team had moments of individual brilliance, whether it was Josef’s otherworldly volley or Marcelino Moreno making teams look silly with his dribbling and knack for a goal. Unfortunately, those highlight reel moments didn’t cover up the fact that there was very little cohesiveness throughout the team. Whether it was the defense connecting to the attack or the front four failing to get on the same page in and around the box, there wasn’t much in the way of attractive team-based soccer. Boiling it down to the most simplistic idea, that’s what seems to be lacking with this team. The ability of the talented individuals to come together as one unit and exude a cohesive identity or style of play.

Difficult Decisions

It’s clear that the club needs to make changes to the roster this offseason. What changes exactly remain to be seen. We’ve already put our two cents in with who we think will stay or leave. You can read those here. We have a good idea of one incoming addition to the squad with all signs pointing to Velez wunderkind Thiago Almada finally arriving on a permanent transfer. That leaves the big question of how do you make room to fit him in? Have we seen the last of Ezequiel Barco in an Atlanta shirt? Will they find a way to get Jurgen Damm’s salary off the books? Will Miles Robinson or George Bello make the leap to Europe? There’s so many questions up in the air that we need to find out the answers to.

Carlos Bocanegra was vague in his post-contract extension press conference about offseason plans. He admitted the club would be looking to bring a couple of “veterans” into the mix, whatever that means. But other than that, there haven’t been any promises made or hints given.

Yet again, heading into an offseason the big question marks are in midfield. Will the club go out again and try to reinforce that area of the field or will they hope that Emerson Hyndman returning from injury and a year of maturation for Franco Ibarra will be enough to support Santiago Sosa?

Lastly there’s the huge cloud hanging over the striker position with the health of Josef Martinez being a constant worry since his return from his hellacious knee surgery recovery. Are the club confident in him finding top form again or will they go out and try to find an impact player to help him carry the goal load? Or at least snag a reliable backup who can do more than run around the field and hold the ball in the corner?

Optimism and Skepticism

At the end of the day, the club is in a much better situation heading into this offseason than they were the last one. That’s cause for optimism on any scale. The big decisions the club have made over the last 12 months (except that huge one we all were excited about this time last year) are trending in a much better direction and that must continue. However, it must be said that even if good signings are made, it all comes down to the club finding a collective identity on the field. Individual talent can only carry you so far in this sport. Gonzalo Pineda must get whoever comes in and whoever remains on the roster to buy-in completely to whatever system and mentality it is he’s trying to sell. Until we see proof that the team understands what it is they’re trying to accomplish as a team stylistically, there’s reason to be skeptical that real progress has been made. It doesn’t matter how much money you splash on shiny new signings if there’s not an understanding by the whole team of what is expected of them.

Here’s to hoping that both the club make good decisions and Pineda can do a much better job of getting everyone to buy-in to a more team-oriented style of play. If both of those scenarios come to fruition, then you can start talking about Atlanta United among the MLS contenders once again.