Atlanta United is just six weeks into competitive matches under Gabriel Heinze’s tutelage. The results have been fairly mixed. The team dominated a lesser side to open Concacaf Champions League, took draws from Philly, Orlando and Miami, beat the Philadelphia Union for 45 minutes, actually won against the Chicago Fire at home, and lost to New England.
It’s been promising and exciting at times, fun even. There are clear issues to work out like learning how to create passing triangles rather than passing straight lines, and figuring out how to get the ball to Josef Martinez in dangerous areas. However, there seem to be clear deficiencies also. Notably, the wing play has not been great, Ezequiel Barco is out for the next one to twenty weeks as is customary for him when he gets a knock or whatever, the striker depth behind Josef Martinez is incapable of scoring or even threatening opposing teams, and Marcelino Moreno’s play has been lackluster especially for someone wearing the No. 10 shirt. Oh and Alex de John is somehow getting minutes. The team hasn’t exactly turned things all the way around since last year, but it has looked better.
2020 ended up being a strong rebuke to the mythos that the first three seasons had somewhat built around the team. Atlanta United entered the league with big ambitions and lived up to them. Winning a championship in 2018, the US Open Cup and Campeones Cup in 2019 along with a second trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in two years had defied a lot of what was thought an MLS expansion side could achieve. It seemed like the team had broken the league and found a way to win, play good soccer while also being on the vanguard of attracting players that would use MLS to hop from South America to Europe.
That all came crashing down in 2020. Before last season I wrote about the team making 18 (EIGHTEEN!) offseason roster moves and noted that:
“looking at what Atlanta United needed and what it did going into this season shows that the team has effectively gone through a rebuild despite that fact that what it needed was to replace Parkhurst and Nagbe. Parky retired and the writing was on the wall about Nagbe since last preseason.Perhaps the other moves are so unexpected because they really don’t seem necessary given how the final stretch of 2019 went. Sure, the spring was a disaster, there was a successful, but very ugly string of wins before the Gold Cup, the debacle in Chicago, but then what seemed like a player revolt in Seattle swung things in a totally new direction. However, when the breakneck pace that the players wanted brought success in August, the team managed to find balance between that and the more patient buildup style that Frank de Boer wanted in the playoffs. The result was a second place finish in the East and a conference final game that featured Miles Robinson not starting and a loss due a pair of wondergoals. That along with the two trophies adds up to a dramatic if not overall successful season.”
That rebuild collapsed last year and the team is once again picking up the pieces. Atlanta United filled key roles this year with Santiago Sosa coming in to play central midfield and Alan Franco finally replacing Leandro Gonzalez Pirez in central defense. Elsewhere on the field, Julian Gressel’s production has not been addressed and what Tito Villalba contributed to the team as a top 5 winger in the TAM era is completely absent.
Supporters seem to have been patient with the team addressing and taking responsibility for the disaster that 2020 was. That said, the curtain has been somewhat raised as to at least a version of how things got as bad as they did. Felipe Cardenas of the Athletic published an article looking at the power struggles within the team tracking the inaugural season through last year. It would seem as if the winner of that struggle was Carlos Bocanegra and that the team suffered mightily as his missteps before the 2020 season sealed the fate of Atlanta United last year.
The article discusses how Bocanegra asserted control over the team leading in part to Tata Martino’s decision to leave the club, including the sporting director being at team meetings and training. Cardenas also gives insight into why Frank de Boer was hired, stating, “According to Eales, De Boer was hired because the front office realized that Atlanta’s opponents had changed their defensive tactics in order to thwart Martino’s aggressive style of play.”
It also discusses how player acquisition was tense under Martino, but became exclusively the responsibility of the front office, noting “‘Frank didn’t even know who was signing, who was out of contract,’ says one former player. ‘Julian Gressel went up to him… he’s negotiating (with the club) and Frank has no idea that Julian’s halfway out the door. Carlos had total control. There was a big change within the club when Paul McDonough left, I think.”’ In the end, the article does not paint a good picture of Bocanegra, how he wrestled for control of the club, and the pernicious way that contract negotiations were handled.
It’s worth noting that this is Carlos Bocanegra’s first high-level club position and the learning curve for some things are certainly steep. Some of the errors he made that are discussed such as being a part of tactical sessions and other things that led to the poor relationship between him and Tata Martino can certainly be remedied. The article notes that when Gabriel Heinze was unveiled as manager, Bocanegra told reporters, “This is Gaby’s team and I think this is something that we have to be mindful of.” How that plays out in terms of the relationship between Heinze and Bocanegra and what lessons were learned about how player moves were handled is yet to be seen. Other mistakes are also fairly straight forward to address. The team took a misstep in hiring Frank de Boer, but seems to have found a promising manager in Heinze who can get the team moving in the right direction tactically.
Perhaps what is most off-putting is how Bocanegra handled avoidable moves that saw fan favorites Julian Gressel, Darlington Nagbe, Tito Villalba, and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez abruptly and somewhat unkindly shown the door and his role in the souring relationship between Tata Martino and the club that led to his departure. It is as if MLS had its very own Jerry Krause breaking up the Bulls after winning just one championship. The moves that the team made seem to have forsaken the culture and identity that the team stood or, or at least what was marketed to fans. That this happened within an organization owned by Arthur Blank, a managerial guru who ran one of the most successful Fortune 500 companies on the planet, is all the more incongruous to the values that Atlanta United claims to stand for.
Supporters have been patient with the club and the media have been critical but not rabid in discussing the team’s struggles. All of that hinges on the idea that the team learned from its mistakes and is moving forward in order to re-establish the winning ways and exciting soccer that make Atlanta United a team capable of breaking MLS. However, the actions that need to be taken to ensure that the team gets back to where it was when it was successful, how the past completely unnecessary failures will be avoided, and the responsibility for rebuilding the team will rest in part with the person who took control of the process that led to last season’s spectacular failure. Atlanta United has decided that Carlos Bocanegra deserves more time to address these issues, it might be time to check and see how much is left before that patience starts running out.