Atlanta United’s front office entered the offseason with a laundry list of daunting tasks ahead of them. Not only did they need to rebuild a roster that fell apart in a nightmare of a 2020 season, but they also needed to find a manager to guide the ship in the right direction after the holes had been plugged. Despite working under the constraints of the COVID era, Darren Eales, Carlos Bocanegra, and the rest of the technical staff stepped up to the plate and smacked a homerun.
Something was clearly wrong with Atlanta United at its core in 2020, that much is obvious. To the technical staff’s credit, they admitted as much very early on in the season and didn’t hesitate to change course. Two massive decisions mid-season really set the foundation for the new era we find ourselves in today.
First it was the huge move to part ways with Frank de Boer. A manager who had just led the club to two trophies eight months prior, it would’ve been easy to ignore the signs and try to weather the storm. Instead, they pulled the plug and began the rebuild. A few weeks later the club agreed to sell Designated Player Pity Martinez to a Saudi Arabian club. No matter your feelings on Pity as a player, it was clear that his time in Atlanta didn’t go to plan. Again it wasn’t a clear and easy decision to make, but they didn’t blink. Those two bold and progressive moves really felt like momentum boosters as we entered the winter.
As it turns out, Eales and Bocanegra had already poured months into their biggest project before the offseason had even started. Nearly as soon the news of De Boer’s departure dropped, Gabriel Heinze’s name was brought up as a dream candidate for the Atlanta job. On paper he seemed like the perfect candidate stylistically and just big enough of a name that would make a splash but not quite big enough that his signing would be impossible. A lot of work and due diligence was put into Heinze’s recruitment but in the end they finally got it done.
It’s safe to say that the front office hired one of the most logical candidates they possibly could have instead of settling for a big name with a spotty resume because of a time crunch. Only time will tell how the Heinze era plays out but early signs are very positive. However, there’s no cautious optimism or blatant wishful thinking when it comes to this hire like there was with De Boer. The front office hit the bullseye with this decision.
Another stroke of genius this offseason was bringing back Paul McDonough to help maneuver around the wild and wacky world of MLS roster mechanisms and restrictions. While I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly what McDonough does so well, it’s clear that the team’s roster building was much better when he was here than when he wasn’t. So far, the results of the signings since he’s arrived speak for themselves.
With the toughest position filled and the return of a familiar face, the focus turned to giving Heinze a strong roster to utilize. The 2020 group of players had some positive qualities, but the mix just felt off. Bringing in Marcelino Moreno at the end of last season was a very nice start. There were some tough pills to swallow like Jeff Larentowicz being allowed to leave and Franco Escobar being sent out on loan. The overall plan started to come into focus once the incoming signings began. With the addition of midfielders Santiago Sosa and Franco Ibarra, the idea seemed to be to get younger, more athletic, and more dynamic. In Sosa, it really feels like they finally made some significant progress on filling the gaping hole left by Darlington Nagbe’s departure after the 2019 season. While different stylistically, Sosa brings the quality and dependability you need in the midfield to succeed at a high level.
One huge hole in last season’s roster was the depth at striker. When Josef Martinez went down there was no one available to pick up the slack. The signing of veteran Lisandro Lopez may not generate a ton of headlines here in the States, he’s a much-needed addition to the depth chart. A reliable, proven, and experienced striker is a very valuable commodity to have and he’ll undoubtedly play an important role for Heinze’s squad.
With the introduction of players like Ronald Hernandez, Erik Lopez, and Alex DeJohn it feels like this squad has the depth to withstand a rigorous fixture list and some injuries and remain competitive.
Finally, the search for a centerback was perhaps the only stressful and worrisome aspect of the entire offseason. After a few swings and misses at lofty targets, the club finally secured Alan Franco. It seems like Atlanta have themselves a dynamic and energetic defender just entering his prime years. If things go according to plan, Franco could very well be a rock in the back for the club for years to come. The centerback partnership of Franco and Miles Robinson has the potential to be among the best in all of North America.
It’s hard to pinpoint an area that the front office didn’t address this offseason. Obviously time will tell how all of these moves play out. The players and manager will need to fulfill their potential on the field to lead to successful results. On paper, the technical staff has done everything in their power to make this club a powerhouse in MLS once again. To be able to confidently say that about one of the worst teams in the league in 2020, is a testament to the great work they’ve done in the last five months.