It’s a fair assumption to say that every Atlanta United fan was happy to see 2022 go. Sure, it wasn’t on the level of the absolute catastrophe that was 2020, but last season had more lows than highs: wildly inconsistent form, injuries left and right, the departure of Darren Eales, and a star striker at odds with his coach and the front office.
That’s not to say there weren’t high points, though.
We watched Thiago Almada — who proved good value for the money Atlanta spent to bring him over from Vélez Sarsfield — be named to the Argentina men’s national team just days before the World Cup, and celebrated with him as he, Lionel Messi, and La Albiceleste won the tournament for the 1st time since 1986. (Speaking of which, in another spell of good news, Atlanta was named a host city in the next World Cup in about 3-and-a-half years.) Eales, now at Newcastle United — who’s in the top 4 in the Premier League and have a Paraguayan midfielder named Miguel Almirón who I hear is in excellent form — was replaced by the Seattle Sounders’ Garth Lagerwey, which is probably the best move the club could have made to fill that spot.
That said, will 2023 be more of the same for Atlanta, or will it rediscover the heights it enjoyed in 2017 and 2018 (and part of 2019)? In what’s become an annual DSS feature, here are 5 bold (I stress, bold) predictions for the upcoming year. (As we often note, the main objective with these is to have some fun regardless of whether one, none, or all of these come true.)
Gonzalo Pineda will win the Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year Award
I can hear the collective eye roll now. Let’s be frank: Gonzalo Pineda hasn’t always gotten it right as Atlanta United’s head coach, and no one’s arguing that point. But when you lose your starting goalkeeper, a CB that would have been in Qatar a few months back if healthy, and a veteran midfielder brought in to provide a steady hand of leadership to your locker room, you’re going to struggle a little bit.
However, 2023 will be a different year for Pineda, who will have a longtime confidant in Lagerwey in the front office along with MLS veteran Derrick Etienne on the roster, along with other possible additions. Brad Guzan and Miles Robinson — plus Ozzie Alonso — will need time to get their sea legs underneath them, but their presence on the team sheet should lift the team’s spirits. There are several other questions to be answered before Feb. 25 (what’s the situation at striker and midfield? Who might replace Alan Franco if and when he departs?), but I’m optimistic that Lagerwey, Pineda, and Carlos Bocanegra will be able to find themselves on the same page and bring in the personnel that can help this team achieve that top 4 finish Lagerwey predicted, and maybe more.
Luiz Araújo will win Landon Donovan MLS MVP
There are probably few players on the Atlanta United roster with more to prove than Luiz Araújo; a $12 million transfer fee and a salary of nearly $4 million in 2022 means a lot of eyes will be turned in your direction. Unfortunately, Araújo never really connected the dots last season (4G/6A) as his decision-making and shot selection was completely below par. I’m not sure whether was due to the weight of the expectations on him or if he just wasn’t in a great headspace. I’m predicting that he finally puts everything together this season and emerges as the league’s MVP. (Also, yes, I stole this from Tyler’s post last year)
Jackson Conway emerges as the backup option at striker we’ve all been waiting for
It seems like we’ve been looking for Jackson Conway to get consistent 1st-team soccer for ages. The 21-year-old has only made 11 appearances with Atlanta United since 2020, and while it’s fair to say that he’s proven to be a pretty good player at the USL Championship level with ATL UTD 2, it’s not quite been a quick adjustment to the top flight. The problem is that the 2s will be in MLS NEXT Pro beginning in 2023, and with it comes a level of competition that’s a step below what it went up against in the first 5 seasons of this existence. Absent a loan move to a 2nd-division European side or something along those lines, I’m of the opinion that Conway will see the pitch on a somewhat routine basis in 2023 and...let’s give him perhaps 5-7 goals, while we’re at it.
Derrick Etienne will be top 10 in MLS in assists
Derrick Etienne is coming to Atlanta on the heels of his best season in MLS: he netted 9 goals and served up 6 assists with the Columbus Crew in 2022, albeit with some alternating pockets of good and not-so-good form. That came a season after he scored just once and assisted on 5 goals in 2021. Despite turning 26 this past November, the Virginia-born, New Jersey-bred Haitian international’s entering his 8th season in MLS, and if he can deliver on a bit more of a consistent basis, then Atlanta’s attack will be that much better. I’ll go on a limb and say that he hits double digits in helpers and puts himself in the top 10 in that department in 2023.
Atlanta United make the Leagues Cup quarterfinals
I originally wanted to put Atlanta in the semifinals given that these are bold predictions and since soccer has a funny way of not going to plan, but I decided to take a step back and say that Atlanta will make the quarterfinals. It’ll mainly depend on which of the 15 groups it’s put in and if it can find itself in one of the top 2 spots. From there, it’s the knockout stage, where it might be able to spring a couple of upsets to get itself among the final 8 of the competition. (To be honest, I don’t know how this new, expanded Leagues Cup with MLS and Liga MX teams is going to turn out, but at the very least it should prove to be a fun summer diversion.)
What do you think? What are your bold predictions for 2023? Drop them down below in the comments.