With an offseason that lasted one-hundred and eleven days, there was ample time to indulge in the possibilities of how Gabriel Heinze’s proprietorship of Atlanta United would play out. And while it hasn’t been perfect, the opening month of the Argentine’s management has been a welcome sight. The horrors of 2020 have been washed away and the Five Stripes are taking slow but steady steps back to once again challenging for MLS supremacy.
The season kicked off with a visit to the Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto and the undefeated Alajuelense in the CCL Round of 16. Atlanta dominated the opening half and did everything but score. A straight red card to Brad Guzan for DOGSO, however, turned the game on its head. The Five Stripes went into bunker mode, but Lady Luck smiled on them. Atlanta was awarded a questionable handball penalty that Ezequiel Barco duly converted, and Heinze escaped Costa Rica with a 1-0 debut victory.
The second leg was yet another one-nil scoreline, with Atlanta taking a 2-0 aggregate win into the quarterfinals. It was nothing resembling a soccer spectacle, however, though it got the job done. A late Jurgen Damm goal on the counter was the only excitement from a sloppy and drab ninety minutes in Kennesaw.
The Five Stripes took the show back on the road the following weekend, visiting the hostile territory of Orlando for its MLS Regular Season opener. Atlanta had the edge in possession but chances were a rarity at either end. A scoreless draw was a fair result and both sides looked stuck in preseason form despite the MLS history between the Southern cities.
Going into its home opener, Atlanta was 2W-1T-0L with two scored (only one from open play) and zero conceded. Defense was clearly the strong suit so far, but the attack made sure to make its mark against Chicago. The Five Stripes came out 3-1 winners, with a Barco wonder-goal and Fire own goal leading the way, while Emerson Hyndman slotted home a third late on. This was Atlanta’s best game yet, and minus one defensive lapse, the Five Stripes had Chicago outplayed from the first minute on.
But the positive momentum didn’t last long. Philadelphia Union came to town to close out April in the CCL quarter-final first leg. The Union handed Heinze his first loss yet in an especially painful fashion and continued the Five Stripes’ unhappy trend of 3-0 losses in quarter-final first legs. Atlanta controlled the first half and should have been up by the interval if not for faulty finishing. The second half, however, was a vastly different story. Philly snatched an against the run of play lead off a set-piece and Atlanta’s over-eagerness in finding an equalizer opened up vast gaps in behind. Unlike the hosts, the Union took advantage of its opportunities and ended up 3-0 winners thanks to a duo of lethal counterattacks. Whereas a 1-0 loss was reversible in the second leg, Atlanta will have to pull off a miracle to make the semifinals for the first time in its history.
Despite the harsh end to April, the first five games under Heinze were overall a success. Atlanta showed it has a clear identity even if it has some, uh, clear weaknesses in defending counterattacks. The Five Stripes are still far from realizing its potential with Heinze, but there’s clearly already a solid foundation. Santiago Sosa is already looking like one of MLS’ best midfielders while the midfield as a whole is miles better than last season; the backline has caused opposing attacks headaches (well, with the exception of Philadelphia...) and that’s with Alan Franco seeing the pitch.
April MVP - Santiago Sosa
As mentioned previously, the 21-year-old has been a constant in the center of the park. He’s linked the backline and midfield with a skill not dissimilar to that of Darlington Nagbe. Sosa’s ability on the defensive side of play allows him to slot in as a third center-back and his tackles are instrumental in breaking up opposing attacks. Sosa is the type of player Atlanta has desperately been craving and already looks to be an ace of a signing. Enjoy him now, because at this rate he won’t be in Atlanta for long.
Three Questions for May
When will we see the real Josef?
Atlanta’s only real “struggles” so far have been in the final third. Marcelino Moreno, Lisandro Lopez, and Jurgen Damm have been underwhelming so far and Atlanta is currently averaging a goal a game. The Five Stripes couldn’t create chances consistently in its first three games but still picked up the results it needed thanks to a rock-solid defense. The 3-1 win over Chicago was a step in the right direction, but it bears keeping in mind that only the third goal came from a clear open-play attack. The other was a Chicago own goal and 0.02 expected goals Barco stunner. Obviously, goals like that can’t be counted on to come week-in, week-out. And that was especially important against Philadelphia. Despite a boatload of chances, Atlanta lacked quality finishing before failing to create much of anything once Philly parked the bus. Josef Martinez has no doubt been far from his best (and no one expected any differently) and has yet to take over a game like old times (0 goals in 5 appearances). It may be a while until we see another 10/10 showing from the Venezuelan, but the sooner Josef returns to goalscoring form, the sooner Atlanta can turn 0-0 and 1-0 scorelines into comfortable wins.
Can Barco turn moments into minutes?
Based on the box score, one of Atlanta’s most important players is Barco. He has 2 goals and 1 assist and played a part in 80% of Atlanta’s total goal haul. But the 22-year-old is playing in bursts rather than seeing play funneled through him. Decision-making is still an issue for the Argentine as well. There’s no denying his talent, but May needs to be a month where Barco proves his worth game after game for Atlanta.
How far can this team go?
While April was by and far a success, May will offer a real glimpse into just what the Five Stripes can accomplish in 2021. Atlanta’s five MLS games (New England, Miami, Montreal, Seattle, Nashville) are all against teams that are in the playoffs currently, while all but Montreal made the postseason last season. A strong run of results could open the doors for a place at the top of the Eastern Conference but no matter what, we’ll know a lot more about reasonable expectations for 2021 in 30 days' time.