The 2023 season is officially over and while Atlanta United didn’t win a trophy or experience true glory, it was undoubtedly an entertaining season. Considering how poorly 2022 went and how bleak things looked at this time a year ago, you have to chalk the last 12 months up as a success.
As the long-term future looks bright, this upcoming offseason is a prime opportunity for the club to take a giant step towards returning to the elite of MLS. Here are four of the biggest questions the club must answer before the 2024 season begins in February.
1. Is Gonzalo Pineda the right manager for Atlanta United?
It’s an inevitable question for Atlanta United, a self-proclaimed ambitious club, who failed to meet their own expectations and goals despite improving the product on the field. Gonzalo Pineda was dealt a rotten hand to begin the season, let’s just get that out there. The roster to open the season was not one that was going to lead to much success. With that said, it is the manager’s job to get the most out of what he has to work with and there’s a big question of if Pineda did that in the first half of the season. As the roster improved so did the quality of play on the field, but there were still tactical issues and problems that arose through the whole campaign.
.— Rob Usry (@RobUsry) November 13, 2023
Garth Lagerwey was brought in to make difficult decisions and to get this club back to the pinnacle of American soccer. With a full season of assessment under his belt, we should now get to see his true feelings about the hand he was dealt. Does he feel that Pineda is the right manager to lead this club back to the promised land? Or could there be someone else out there better suited for the job? Supporters and pundits can give their opinions on the matter all they like, but at the end of the day, it comes down to what Garth’s true feelings are.
2. Is Brad Guzan going to remain the starting goalkeeper?
Perhaps the biggest on-field talking point for the Five Stripes this season has been the continued decline and ineffectiveness of club legend Brad Guzan. One of the two remaining members of the inaugural 2017 team, Guzan’s performance this season has been extremely polarizing. While some people point to the undeniable advanced analytics that rank him near the bottom of MLS goalkeepers in terms of production, others blame the team’s attack-minded nature and susceptibility to big chances for his poor numbers.
It doesn’t take a data scientist to see that the Guzan we see today is not the same goalkeeper that helped the club lift MLS Cup in 2018. That’s not a knock on his talent, it’s just a fact of life that time is undefeated. The end is near, but exactly how near? Most people have been clamoring for the club to start preparing for a future without Guzan, but does that future begin in 2024? There’s something to be said for being loyal to a great leader of the club, but it’s really hard to envision Atlanta United competing at the highest level in this league with Guzan at the helm.
3. How will the centerback situation be addressed?
Miles Robinson’s contract is expiring and he will likely head to Europe. Juanjo Purata’s loan is over and his dwindling minutes over the course of the season leads us to believe he might not be back either. There are obvious holes that need to be filled and we’ve already seen a little smoke as far as rumors linking the club to potential replacements. Former transfer target David Martinez of River Plate has popped back up as a possible signing. Of course there’s no telling what’s going on behind the scenes that hasn’t leaked out, as well. Needless to say, there’s a very good chance the club will have at least one new starting centerback by the start of next season.
There’s no point in speculating on names that could come in, but we can talk about what type of centerback the club should be after. If Guzan isn’t a major part of the team’s lineup going forward, they will be in major need of an on-field leader. There’s no better position for that leadership to exude from than centerback. Perhaps the team can find an experienced defender that can both organize the team defensively and provide some much-needed stability.
4. What will the Designated Player strategy be?
The general plan for this season, as admitted by Garth Lagerwey, was to be extremely conservative when building the roster to ensure the long-term health and sustainability of the salary cap. We saw this plan in action at the summer transfer window when the club brought in several under-the-radar signings that changed the trajectory of the squad without hindering their maneuverability for 2024. Now that we’ve reached the offseason, Saba Lobjanidze’s DP tag should be able to be bought down freeing up one guaranteed slot to utilize. Also, depending on what happens with Thiago Almada’s status this winter, we could potentially see two slots available.
The team’s U-22 initiative situation will determine exactly what type of DP’s the club can bring in. If they’re able to reduce the U-22 players to just one, then all three slots are eligible to be filled with full DP’s with no limitations. If they are unable to reduce the U-22’s to one, then one slot will need to be a Young DP like Thiago Almada.
We can assume that if Almada’s slot is freed up they’ll look for a like-for-like replacement at attacking midfielder. So, the question is, what to do with the slot opened up by buying down Saba? The first option would be to find the centerback you’re looking for, but not many successful team utilize a DP slot on defenders. The next and most logical option would be to find a defensive midfielder to partner with Tristan Muyumba. Then, of course, you could look to add another impact player to the attack.
The options are aplenty and thanks to some smart planning, the club is a great position to bolster the roster for a run at some trophies next season.