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Atlanta United tailspin on full display as Martinez and Heinze feud

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Josef Martinez and Gabriel Heinze’s feud is the latest drama in an organization that is losing its way.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Chicago Fire Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Since January of 2019 fans, bloggers, and even big media outlets have been asking: what is Atlanta United doing? We won’t go into significant detail because at this point the past has been well documented and doubts about the team’s course leading to its present state have been expressed. In short, the doubts about 2019 were about if Frank de Boer was the right man for the job. The season experienced a fair amount of tumult with tension between Frank’s European managing style and interactions with players and the Latin American players resisting that, at times loudly and in public. The result really wasn’t that bad though as the team collected two trophies and was probably a missed penalty away from a second trip to the MLS Cup Final.

Things really got concerning in 2020 when, for what then seemed somewhat unnecessary and what in retrospect looks like possibly a completely misguided attempt at some sort of power grab by Carlos Bocanegra to send a message to players about their attitude and the conflicts of the past season as documented by Felipe Cardenas in the Athletic - OR - a totally mishandled and poorly executed attempt to address flaws and shortcomings on the roster, the roster was completely rebuilt.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but at this point, we all know that Josef Martinez sustained an injury. With the roster nearly completely overturned nobody was there to step up. The culture of the team was lost along with the players who departed. And Atlanta finished the year in embarrassing fashion, firing its coach, missing the playoffs, and looking more and more like a shadow of its former self.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Nashville SC The Tennessean-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services, LLC

This year has not been much better. In fact the signs of progress or a turnaround are virtually absent. Some nice pieces were added in the offseason as the team rebuilt the roster, but there were still severe shortcomings that were not addressed - specifically an attacker on the wing and a suitable backup for Josef Martinez.

Other issues emerged as well. It’s unclear how much Atlanta United is losing in terms of cap space to the players like Meza and Franco Escobar who are on loan. A burdensome contract got handed to an aging Brad Guzan (the highest-paid keeper in the league). A mega-deal given to an often injured and ineffective Jurgen Damm. And a roster spot given to Bocanegra’s former teammate at Chivas USA, Cubo Torres. They all loom as large albatrosses around the neck of the team’s roster.

Add to it that the front office has also seen its share of turnover with Lucy Rushton moving to DC United plus Paul McDonough hired, suspended and subsequently leaving the team, and it seems like whatever organizational stability that the team had and could draw from also crumbled away.

Organizations should expect a fair bit of change, but these changes are a chance to improve and get better. They should also be a chance to make small adjustments, to go back and build on an existing stable structure and improve things rather than constantly make wholesale changes. The changes have been a recipe for disaster for Atlanta United. Especially in terms of the culture of the organization. Rather than building on what existed between 2017-2018 and taking what happened and could be fixed in 2019 with small changes, the team essentially erased the culture - the shared values, ethics, and beliefs that truly brought the players together and made the it something special - of the team. New players can come in, new coaches can come in, but the team’s culture as it existed when it was successful is gone and won’t come back in the same form it took before.

It is without joy and with deep concern that those doubts were validated and in many ways the worst-case scenario of their potential impacts have come true. Or have even been worse than expected. This is especially surprising given that the team is owned by Arthur Blank, someone who built one of the most successful organizations in the world from the ground up and turned it into an international leader in its field in less than 25 years. That Atlanta United has become what it has is something that must, at least should, weigh on him as he sits in the owner’s box.

Josef Martinez practicing alone is not an isolated problem. It is a part of a pattern that has ruined Atlanta United for the past year and a half. Whatever the conflict is about, a team that has a strong culture that brings it together and drives the different units to achieve a common goal does not see its manager and its most important player stuck in a situation like this. It also does not see the front office so weakly communicate what is going on with someone who has achieved iconic status in the city and has been the face of the organization to its fans. Frankly, given all that has happened over the past 18 months, the supporters deserve better.

One more thought that I can only hope will be the exception to the rule thus far and not be validated in the future: It does not look like the front office knows what it is doing or how to fix the problems that it has created. A transfer or two might have made a difference, but the team has failed on every single designated player it has brought in since Tito, Miguel, and Josef. Every. Single. One. Not even throwing money around is a proven formula for success for the team at this point.

Watching from afar, we don’t know what the true situation is with Atlanta United, but the results speak for themselves - they do not speak for an organization that is well run where people are happy or at least invested enough to do their jobs effectively. Frankly, I don’t know where the organization goes from here. I can speak from personal experience and say that I’ve been a part of more than one environment that was poorly run by the leadership and toxic in terms of the relations between management and employees. Ultimately, the best thing for me was to leave.

At some point responsibility for the situation has to fall upon Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra. They’re the common denominator. I don’t work for them and don’t have to face the decision of leaving their organization. However, at some point the fans watching do have that choice. When they make it, the legacy of Atlanta United may end up being a warning for teams in the future rather than an example to follow.