Atlanta United fans were smacked in the face Thursday afternoon with the startling news that midfielder Emerson Hyndman tore the ACL in his right knee while the team has been training during the international break.
While Hyndman has been on the wrong end of criticism since his signing for reasons more due to the salary budget than his play on the field, the Texas native quietly had become a key fixture in manager Gabriel Heinze’s squad. With Hyndman’s season now finished, he played in all but nine possible minutes for Atlanta United through the first seven games in league play. And that’s on top of four games in Concacaf Champions League in which he played every possible minute. Considering the fixture congestion during this early-season period when players are normally just growing into their fitness, it’s a testament not only to Hyndman’s physicality, but also shows how highly Heinze valued the player.
This injury is such a big wrench in the works that it could force Atlanta’s hand in the upcoming transfer window (opening July 7) to address the position and add some needed depth. Unfortunately, it does not appear that Atlanta will receive any financial relief due to the conditions of the injury, and placing Hyndman on the season-ending injury list will merely result in an open roster slot. Here’s the rule according to the MLS Rules and Regulations:
If a player suffers a season-ending injury, a club may place that injured player on the Season-Ending Injury List and receive roster relief (i.e., an open roster slot). Once placed on the Season-Ending Injury List, the injured player will not be eligible to play for the club in any remaining competition during that MLS season (including any exhibition games or tournaments).
A club may replace an injured player that is on the Season-Ending Injury List with a new replacement player in accordance with parameters below.
The club will remain responsible for the injured player’s full Salary Budget Charge. Clubs may execute a trade to create Salary Budget space in order to sign such a replacement player. This is the only circumstance in which a club may trade for Salary Budget space. Clubs are only able to receive Salary Budget relief (paid out of the club’s own pocket) for a season-ending injury under the following parameters:
The injured player must be earning at least $100,000 per annum.
The injured player must have suffered the season-ending injury prior to the close of the Primary Transfer Window and the new player must be acquired as of such date.
The replacement player may earn up to $250,000 but not more than the player who suffered the season-ending injury.
The replacement player’s charge will be billed back to the club.
Clubs will only be allowed to sign one such replacement player per MLS League Season.
Regardless of how Atlanta United may or may not address this down the line a month from now, what we know for certain is there’s a handful of games in which Heinze will have to make do with what he has on hand. Let’s look at some options (though there are endless possible solutions to this very difficult problem, and we welcome hearing any that y’all have in the comments below).
Next man up
The option that requires the least amount of tinkering of roles and responsibilities among the team is to simply ask another player on the roster to come in and do Hyndman’s job. While not the same profile of midfielder, Franco Ibarra would surely have the leg up on either Rossetto or Adams due to the amount of playing time he’s already received this season — a clear indicator that Heinze has a modicum of trust in the player.
To be fair to Adams, he’s missed almost all training time early in the season as he recovered from sports hernia surgery conducted just prior to the start of the campaign. He’s yet to play a single minute of competitive action this season, and it seems unrealistic that he’d be thrown into the fire so suddenly without having time to ramp up his match fitness and sharpness.
Matheus Rossetto had a similar disruption in preseason as he worked to secure a green card, but at least he’s been training and playing a little bit. But it’s telling that Rossetto has only made one brief appearance for the first team this season — a 2-minute substitute appearance against the Sounders. His most recent match started was with Atlanta United 2 on May 20, three days prior to his sub appearance in Seattle. The two minutes in MLS and 106 minutes in USL is his only competitive action so far this season.
It’s safe to say that there isn’t a perfect like-for-like player here that could step into the role, but hey, in this situation — particularly in a salary-capped league like MLS — there are rarely good options.
Here’s where we start to get creative with solutions, and therefore I should preface this by saying these ideas are purely conceptual at this point and we have no indication that Heinze would be willing to shift away from some of the underlying principles of the way his team organizes itself in possession. With that said, it seems to me that a way to help support a young player like Ibarra (if he is indeed the player that comes into the side) would be to have Sosa closer to him as an outlet and limit his responsibilities as a pair in a double pivot.
Something to keep in mind during this exercise is that the team isn’t going to only be missing only Hyndman, it’s also going to be missing Josef Martinez, likely until the transfer window opens. That means that you’re losing not one, but two players who are contributors in the attacking phase, and Atlanta will need to compensate somehow for that loss. The most logical solution is to utilize Sosa’s technical ability and vision further up the field. We’ve seen that he has quality around the box when he scored Atlanta’s only goal in the second leg of its CCL quarterfinal matchup against the Philadelphia Union.
Traditional back three
One of Heinze’s primary considerations when formulating a squad that can compete without some key players such as Martinez and Hyndman has to be how to maximize the amount of quality he can put on the field. It’s clear that when Atlanta United only uses two center backs, whichever one is left to the bench feels like a waste. Admittedly, Alan Franco has looked out of sorts since making his transfer to Atlanta. But considering his valuation and Designated Player status, it’s obvious that he’s a player Atlanta United needs to be on the field producing.
This is the K.I.S.S. 3-4-3 that would seemingly involve fewer moving parts — specifically in regards to Santiago Sosa’s role — than we’ve seen so far this season. Of course, Heinze’s tactics seem to be predicated that role Sosa plays, so we don’t really know how willing the manager would be to play with these three traditional center backs. Even in the double pivot shown above, Sosa could still drop between the center backs at times, or even between the fullback and the center back to create passing options from deep. In this setup, there’d be naturally less space for him to occupy at the back, and would play as a more traditional central midfielder.
While all MLS managers have challenges finding roles for players as injuries and international absences come into play, Heinze may have the most difficult task of all this season. This is only the first of many shakeups likely to occur as the season progresses. When the Olympics and Gold Cup tournaments roll around, there are likely to be more absences among key players, and the upcoming summer transfer window leaves even more uncertainty. All I have to say is, good luck!