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Why the Five Stripes finally needed to stop

Atlanta United’s mentality is changing and maturing.

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Seattle Sounders FC Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports


It’s a motto Atlanta United has lived by for nearly all of its seven seasons in Major League Soccer. Darren Eales coined the phrase when the club was at the pinnacle of American club soccer. After conquering MLS Cup in 2018, it felt like nothing could stop the burgeoning juggernaut in Atlanta.

Fast forward to present day: the club has failed to live up to those standards, consistently sliding towards mediocrity year by year. How we arrived here has been well documented. Failed signings, poor roster management, and missteps in trying to replace Tata Martino were all contributing factors. Despite obvious and critical setbacks, the “Five Stripes Don’t Stop” mentality endured. Instead of taking a step back, the club continued to push the limits on high profile signings. Making a splash and grabbing headlines took precedence over smart and logical decisions. One look at the list of the most expensive incoming transfers in league history proves the point without any doubt:

With four different transfers in the top 10 most expensive transfer fees paid by MLS clubs, Atlanta United made its name by breaking the expectations for what constitutes a major signing within the league.

However, when those major signings fail to live up to their price tag on the field, that’s when trouble comes. The club knocked their first batch of Designated Player signings out of the park by bringing in Tito Villalba, Miguel Almiron, and Josef Martinez for their inaugural squad. All three players played pivotal roles in the club’s successful first two seasons.

The first signs of Atlanta’s transfer strategy faltering came early in 2018 when it bought down Villalba’s DP status opening a spot for Ezequiel Barco. At the time of his arrival Barco was the league’s most expensive signing and a player who at one time was linked to clubs such as Arsenal and Manchester United. This was seen as a huge coup for the club and league.

While the signing garnered tons of headlines and plaudits — even being announced during the 2018 MLS SuperDraft — the on-field production never translated with Barco playing a supporting role in the MLS Cup-winning side, then struggling to make an impact as a focal point of the attack until finally being sent on a two-season loan to River Plate.

The next huge name brought in a year later somehow trumped Barco in terms of hype and headlines. What’s more exciting than a highly-rated Argentine wunderkind desired by top European clubs? How about the reigning South American Player of the Year fresh off leading one of the most prestigious clubs in the world to a Copa Libertadores title? Pity Martinez joining Atlanta United fresh off their storybook 2018 campaign seemed almost unfair.

Sure they lost Almiron, but here they are bringing in someone arguably even better.

Once again, reality did not match expectation. Pity did play a significant role in helping the team win both the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup, but the production never correlated with the talent he possessed on a consistent basis. Ultimately, after a couple of disappointing seasons in Atlanta, he was sold to Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia in 2020.

This struggle between grabbing headlines, making a splash and, actually improving the team really culminated in the summer of 2021. The combination of disappointing DP signings and questionable fringe additions resulted in another mediocre season with the club mired around the playoff line. This situation should feel similar because it’s the exact situation Atlanta United faced heading into the the transfer window that just concluded.

Looking back at what Darren Eales’ strategy was two years ago in this situation opposed to what Garth Lagerwey showed us, and we really can begin to understand the new direction that Atlanta United is heading in.

With a juicy DP spot open and a mediocre team on the field, the “Five Stripes Don’t Stop” mentality was pushed to the limit. Eales went on the full offensive promising that an impact DP would be brought in to replace Pity Martinez. What transpired next can only be described as pure pandemonium. Atlanta United were linked with a constant barrage of rumors looking for a winger. Names from all over the globe were said to be talks to join the club.

After several near-misses the club finally signed Luiz Araujo on a $12 million transfer at the last minute. Make no mistake about it, this was a panic signing pure and simple. An impact signing was promised and one had to be made. Instead of taking a step back and admitting that the team in 2021 wasn’t worth going all out for, they kept piling on hoping that throwing money at the problem would solve it. Clearly it did not, as Araujo joined the list of failed big name signings and was shipped out less than two seasons at the club.

With Garth Lagerwey taking the helm in January, his messaging has been clear. Atlanta United’s roster and salary cap was an absolute mess upon his arrival and it would take time to get them back in good standing. So entering this summer window with a fat juicy DP spot open, you can understand why Atlanta United fans and everyone around the MLS world would expect to see the Five Stripes make a huge splash in the transfer market.

The dust has settled on the summer window now and while a DP was signed, it wasn’t one that interrupted the SuperDraft or had fans tracking flights and flocking to the airport. It was sensible signings that set the club up for a better future.

Bringing in a low budget DP allows the club to take a step back and assess all of their options in the upcoming offseason. Instead of trying to make a splash and possibly hurting your chances to improve the roster later, these decisions have opened all kinds of options for building a truly competitive team down the road. The club’s problems go well beyond big picture decisions like DP signings, but it’s been the mentality of how they deal with these types of issues that has landed them where they are.

Intelligence and sensibility is what Garth Lagerwey brings to Atlanta United, and this transfer window was a true turning point for the club. The pressures that come with running a club with the expectations that this one does has to be immense. Atlanta United has built the reputation of always going big and being extravagant. That’s probably why so many outsiders and even a sizable chunk of the Atlanta fanbase has found it difficult to accept this change in mentality.

But if the harsh realities of the MLS structure haven’t kicked you in the teeth by now, then you probably aren’t ever going to accept that you can’t constantly throw money around and expect things to improve. Atlanta United were at rock bottom when Garth Lagerwey was brought in. If anyone is equipped to help the club reach the peaks of where it once was, it’s him. You’re just going to have to accept that the Five Stripes have to stop for bit in order to get going in the right direction again.