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What should Atlanta United do to fill the void at center back?

Big decisions await.

19694043 Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group via Getty Images

Almost everything has gone perfectly for Atlanta United during a very important offseason re-tooling as the club attempts to rebound from The Season That Shall Not Be Named. The club locked down the manager they wanted in Gabriel Heinze, a hiring widely considered a stunning accomplishment for any MLS club. And with that very important managerial appointment followed a slew of seemingly smart players acquisitions headlined by by midfielders Santiago Sosa and Franco Ibarra.

Everything was shaping up well and the two-deeps being created on Twitter, Reddit and spare scraps of paper just had one final hole at center back with a clear expectation of being filled. First it was by David Martinez, a young prospect who recently broke out at Defensa y Justicia. But that signing broke down due to a convoluted transfer saga that wound up with the player moving to River Plate. But the worst case scenario unfolded last week when it was confirmed that the apparent backup plan to Martinez, Velez Sarsfield center back Lautaro Giannetti, failed his physical when Atlanta United doctors found abnormalities in his surgically repaired left knee. “Shite,” Darren Eales surely muttered.

Now, the club is stuck in a situation it was surely trying to avoid. The team is without a top-quality center back to pair next to Miles Robinson, and every team on the globe is aware of the fact that Atlanta is scrambling trying to fill this void on the roster. To make matters worse, the transfer window in Argentina (where the club has clearly been shopping) is now closed. That doesn’t mean Atlanta can’t acquire a player from an Argentine club, but it means that said club would not be able to bring in a reinforcement until the summer transfer window opens. This all adds up to a situation that is going to make it very difficult for Atlanta to add a center back it likes long term and is confident building a team around prior to the 2021 MLS season kickoff in early April.

SOCCER: SEP 19 MLS Inter Miami CF at Atlanta United FC
How Atlanta United chooses to fill the void next to Miles Robinson could be a defining decision.
Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Atlanta essentially has two options at this point: It can continue pushing forward to bring in the best possible center back right now, or it can try to make do as best it can without long-term investment until the Argentine season ends in mid-May. (Note: Presumably, Atlanta wouldn’t need to wait until the summer transfer window opens, seeing as MLS’s current transfer window is remaining open this year until June 1. An Argentine club could afford to part with a player as soon as its season is over.)

In my opinion the risks of the former outweigh the gains, and the more conservative strategy of holding on and weathering the storm for ~10 weeks is the smarter move.

Yes, acquiring someone — anyone — at this point will help the team in the short and medium term. The [presumed] added quality would make the team stronger on the field for the upcoming CONCACAF Champions League campaign and congested schedule that awaits Gabriel Heinze’s squad. And having a player in place for at least a portion of Heinze’s current training camp would likely have lasting benefits that extend beyond this initial portion of the season. The team cohesion and tactical familiarity that’s being built as we speak will continue to accrue as the season wears on.

Now, if there’s a player in Argentina that is actually available right now at an affordable price and that the team loves, they should definitely pursue it with a quickness! But those are huge “ifs.” And so, the risks of moving too fast are high. You’re looking to acquire a player that will presumably eat a hefty chunk of allocation money and occupy an international slot. If that player turns out to be ill-suited, it can become a huge weight that could prevent Heinze and the team from achieving what we all think its capable of over this two-year period.

On the other side of the coin, Atlanta could wait. And yes, it would probably result in some bumps and bruises in the near term.

Maybe I’m looking at this with rose colored glasses, but Atlanta has the personnel on hand to at least tread water early in the season. Anton Walkes would presumably be the player that would step in as Robinson’s partner, but Sosa has experience in the position too. Both players are tidy enough to build from the back, though admittedly neither is going to be the marauding center back we all want to see soon.

In any case, it’d probably behoove Atlanta to add a domestic center back with MLS experience for depth — not dissimilar to Bobby Boswell coming into the fold under Tata Martino in 2017. If Walkes is stepping up into a starting role, that leaves the extremely green George Campbell — a player who last played a competitive minute in the pre-pandemic era — as the backup. That won’t do. But as for the marquee signing? Atlanta can afford to wait.