Atlanta United will begin its fifth season by “relaunching” in hopes of finding the same kind of success it had in its first season. This follows a completely forgettable fourth campaign in which the team’s best player was lost for the year and its manager couldn’t figure out how to get the team to score a goal without him. The relaunch marks a return to familiar territory for the Five Stripes: there’s excitement, but it’s hard to say exactly what to expect from the team. Logic tells us that it might be a long process for Atlanta United to get back to the top of the league, but it also tells us that the team went from not existing to winning MLS Cup in two seasons.
The crumbling architecture of neurotic genius
Once it became clear that Atlanta United was going to not only fire its manager but then also be a glorified USL team for 2020, I pretty much tuned out. Not only for Atlanta United, but for most of MLS outside of catching the odd game here or there and keeping up with Americans in the league for my domestic league column on Stars and Stripes FC. This wasn’t just because of Atlanta United being terrible. 2020 was generally awful and staying on top of MLS was much less of a priority for me and how I needed to spend my time.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that what had transpired was that the Eastern Conference underwent a big shift. Philly was the best team in the league, Orlando was not only competent, they were good and fun, the process of the Red Bulls relying on a combination of player development and frugality to be successful ran into a wall, Nashville and New England turned out to be good, and the Columbus Crew were solid all year and stellar in the post-season.
Despite all this, Atlanta United still controlled its destiny heading into Decision Day, or a week or two before it I don’t remember, and shockingly had something to play for other than a high draft pick. Still, Stephen Glass couldn’t get the team to score and Atlanta was one of only four of 14 teams not to make the playoffs. Then a weird thing happened. After months of… nothing in terms of rumors about a new manager, it turned out that Atlanta United was actually run by bloggers after all and the team hired Gabriel Heinze signaling a new chapter that the team hoped would look like the old chapter.
The Dread God returns
Are we ready for this? I mean, have we really fully thought about what it means to cast aside soccer that is based on buildings being close together and trying to get a piano through a little window or whatever and once again embrace Bielsa inspired CHAOS FUTBOL? It’s coming, maybe. Atlanta United once again rebuilt the team in 2021 but this time the uncertainty is good and despite the Dread God beckoning once again, comes with hope.
Josef Martinez is healthy, there’s a Lopez everywhere on the pitch, Eric Remedi is gone, and some other new players who look like they can lock down the center of the pitch in Franco Ibarra and Santi Sosa are welcome additions. Ezequiel Barco is once again set to play 14 games or whatever, but again there’s a Lopez to hopefully step in for him. This is good, aside from some weirdness happening at left-center back and the fact that Jurgen Damm or Brooks Lennon is going to play on the right wing (I’m really trying hard not to think too hard about that one), the team looks solid.
The team will contend with an Eastern Conference that is less talented but probably has more parity than last season. Of course, this is assuming that the league keeps the conference format the way it is and doesn’t change to a multiple division type thing. Outside of Cincinnati and Atlanta, no team has really made waves this offseason and most teams that were at the top of the conference took a step back in some way or another. Philly lost two key players along with NYCFC. Toronto decided to replace one of the best managers in the league with Chris Armas, a sequel to a delightful movie we saw in New York a few years ago. Meanwhile, Orlando and Columbus made some interesting moves, but don’t seem set to run away with the conference this year.
Nashville will need to score more goals this year, the Revs will go as Carles Gil goes, and Miami and DC looked like good rosters last year with bad coaches and each got a new coach. Meanwhile, Chicago and Montreal are bad. Very bad.
It’s not the Declaration of Independence, but it’ll do
Here is the thing about the future. Every time you look at, it changes, because you looked at it, and that changes everything else.
So, what are the expectations for Gabriel Heinze’s first year managing Atlanta United? At this point the team controls its own destiny. Atlanta comes into the year with a few question marks. Will the defense gel whatever it looks like? Can the central midfield be able to move the ball forward into the opposing team’s end in a team that should take more risks going forward? What kind of contribution will the team get out of the wingers? What will Josef Martinez’s year look like?
These answers will be found soon enough, but the team should be back to playing attacking soccer that puts fear into the minds of opposing teams making them at least a bit more cautious going forward against Atlanta. Should the team pull that off and do so consistently, there’s no reason to think the expectation for Heinze in his first year is a first round home playoff game by the time the regular season ends. Put another way, most of the teams in the conference, including Atlanta, except for Chicago and Montreal could finish 2nd or 6th.