Position: Center back
2021 League Games: 26 appearances, 24 starts
What went right in 2021
While Alan Franco got off to a slow start upon his arrival (which we’ll reflect upon later in this piece) it’s not crazy to say he finished the season as one of the best central defenders in the league. What’s even safer to say is that down the stretch run of the season, Franco was outperforming his star partner Mile Robinson — granted the Best XI defender was feeling the effects of a long year after having risen to the top ranks of the U.S. Men’s National Team. Maybe the best evidence of Franco’s assimilation into the team was the performance on display in the team’s final match of the season, a 2-0 loss to NYCFC. Despite the loss, Franco was instrumental to the team’s build-up play that helped give Atlanta a foothold in the game’s opening half hour. And while his technical ability on the ball was instrumental, what was perhaps more striking was his confidence, his assertiveness in making himself available to receive and demanding the ball. It was a stark contrast to what we saw from the Argentine native early during his Atlanta tenure, and a very encouraging sign of what to expect this coming season.
What to improve in 2022
Franco arrived in Atlanta under unique circumstances. Not only was he signed as a Designated Player while playing a position in central defense that makes it difficult to easily justify such an expense, it appeared he was essentially a special request from then-manager Gabriel Heinze. The since-departed Heinze seemed determined to bring in a center back that could handle the responsibilities he needed for his team to perform, and the team failed to secure two other prospects at the position before securing the more-expensive.
This is important context to understand the pressure on a player like Franco. Maybe it’s no surprise that he frankly seemed a shell of what he was at Independiente in those early months of the season. It’s no easy task being thrust into the spine of the team just 11 days prior to the league opener (and CCL had already started) with pressure to perform from a demanding manager and a fanbase that sees you as one of the three star players.
So maybe this section is less “what to improve on” and more “what won’t play nearly as significant of a factor in performance” for Franco in 2022. Will he still be looked upon as a high-priced piece that is perhaps never able to quantitatively justify the pricetag? Sure. But the truth of the matter is that he doesn’t have to justify anything, so long as he can help Atlanta become a difficult team to play and score against.
2022 Season Outlook
Without the stresses that 2021 surely weighed upon Franco, Atlanta United fans can expect, as a baseline, a solid and competent partner for Miles Robinson. But more tantalizingly, the ceiling is more along the lines of someone who could challenge Robinson as the team’s top defender, while offering a skillset that is different and complimentary. Together, Atlanta has the making of what could (and maybe should) be one of the best pairings in the league if they can stay healthy.