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What is Santiago Sosa’s role in Gonzalo Pineda’s Atlanta United side?

Through a significant chunk of the season, Santiago Sosa has hardly played. While injuries have contributed, are other factors at play? And what is his future?

MLS: CF Montreal at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

There is no doubt Santiago Sosa is a talented footballer. It’s the reason why he was so highly prized by Gabriel Heinze when the Argentine head coach arrived to Atlanta United in 2021, and reportedly made the acquisition of Sosa one of his top priorities. He needed a player who could be — both literally and figuratively — the quarterback of his system. A player who could sit deep, receive the ball from the goalkeeper, keep the build-up humming and even spark the attack himself with long diagonal passes to the wings.

If you paid attention in 2021, you know exactly who Santiago Sosa is and the strengths he brings to the table. But there are some headwinds that stand in the way of him finding the success in Atlanta that he seemed destined for back when he was one of the club’s prized recruits under the newly implemented U-22 initiative in MLS.

Injury issues at the worst possible time

Toward the latter half of the 2021 season, Sosa saw injury issues crop up related to his adductor (groin) which we later learned was a sports hernia the player was trying to manage. Crucially, Sosa was out injured during the exact time period in which new head coach Gonzalo Pineda took charge to replaced the departed Heinze (Pineda’s introduction to the club was delayed due to a positive covid test), and ended up only playing in 8 of the 14 matches in which Pineda was on the touchline. Granted, Sosa started in every match in which he was fit to play, which is a crucial piece of information that signals that Pineda does indeed value what the Argentine midfielder brought to the table that season.

SOCCER: AUG 04 MLS - Atlanta United FC at CF Montreal Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Just a week after the final game of the season, a playoff loss at the hands of eventual MLS Cup champions NYCFC, Sosa underwent sports hernia surgery that held him out for a significant period of time. So much so that Sosa would not participate in much of Atlanta United’s 2022 preseason, another crucial period to miss where a manager installs a tactical system and trains players to perform specific roles within said system.

In this case specifically, it’s important to note that Pineda admitted that he intentionally wanted to keep the tactical system as consistent as possible in 2021 as the way to help secure the most points possible as Atlanta scrapped for a playoff spot. Sosa was, of course, a huge part of that system as established by Heinze. But the manager changed to a back four in 2022, and one can understand why that would be a drastic change for a player like Sosa, who’s initial role carved out by Heinze was specifically to play as the third center back.

Increased competition

It’s difficult enough to try to keep your spot in the team given the conditions described above, but it’s even more difficult when your absence allows for other similarly-profiled players to come into the team and show the head coach what they can do. In this case, that competing player is Franco Ibarra. If, in the newly implemented 4-2-3-1, Pineda was looking for a pure ball-winning midfielder, Ibarra has proven to be exactly that.

In fact, when we compare the two player’s statistical profiles, you can see exactly how they differ from one another.

(Note: these statistical profiles are composed of minutes played over the last 365 days, not only from stats accrued this season.)

Clearly Sosa is more determined to find the ball and complete passes, while Ibarra is fine letting his teammates do more of the work in possession while he pressures and hassles opponents to win it back as quickly as possible. Both players have their strengths and weaknesses, but it’s understandable that a players like Ibarra might be a better fit to play next to a midfielder like Matheus Rossetto, who prefers to be on the ball as much as possible.

Ibarra’s emergence, combined with the injury trouble that Sosa has suffered through both last year and this year (he’s missed more time recently with adductor issues) is reason enough for him to only have been on the field for 325 minutes through 13 games this season.

So the big question is:

What is Sosa’s future?

In the immediate future — Atlanta United’s remaining matches in June — it’s unrealistic to expect Sosa to burst back into the starting lineup given his current injury that has kept him out of the matchday squad since May 8 — a game in which he played 9 minutes off the bench in a 4-1 win over the Chicago Fire.

But looking beyond that into the second half of the season when Sosa will presumably be fully fit, it’s impossible to consider this question without the backdrop of the current injury crisis facing Atlanta United’s defense, where the team is missing two fullbacks, it’s star center back, and it’s captain goalkeeper (among others) for either months or the rest of the season. It certainly feels like an inefficient use of a team’s resources to have such a need for talent in those areas while keeping a player like Sosa or Ibarra on the bench. If it’s the case where Sosa is struggling to get into the team, I’m sure it’d be frustrating for the player as well.

SOCCER: APR 16 MLS - FC Cincinnati at Atlanta United Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But it’s not purely a question of either Ibarra or Sosa in a given lineup. While it seems unlikely to see them together as a central midfield pairing given their profiles, the question remains as to whether Pineda could essentially revert back to the Heinze-style system once again — playing a back three that includes Sosa and Ibarra in midfield. It may not be the Pineda’s preference, but it might just be the only hand he can play considering the cards he’s been dealt by the injury gods.

If Pineda doesn’t see that as an option, would the club consider finding a transfer for Sosa, which could open up a U-22 slot? It’s easier said than done for a player who’s dealt with injuries for most of the last 18 months. And it’s not the position a club wants to deal players from, where you’d only be getting back cents on the dollar of value.

The good news for Sosa is something Pineda told media after a frustrating loss in it’s last match prior to the current lengthy international break:

“We are gonna regroup and reemphasize the importance of every play, and whoever is ready to play up to that standard is going to start for my team.”

That’s not a threat, it’s an opportunity for every player in the squad — most of all one such as Sosa given his path to this point in the season.