Atlanta United has set a high standard for itself during its initial years in Major League Soccer. The hope for 2021 is that a new coach with some new ideas, and the return of star striker, can help the Five Stripes get back to that level after a dismal last season.
Atlanta United endured the most disappointing campaign of its brief existence in 2020, falling well short of the established expectations to compete for titles, failing to the playoffs for the first time in team history. The Five Stripes have retooled, however, both on the sidelines and in the roster to attempt to piece together a bounce-back year.
Promising young Argentine manager Gabriel Heinze is now at the helm of the team after impressing in his native land with Velez Sarsfield, and with him have come a few significant squad additions like midfielder Santiago Sosa and right back Ronald Hernandez. Lethal center forward Josef Martinez is also back and healthy again after missing most of 2020 with a devastating knee injury.
All of that has made for plenty of reason for optimism for a side known for contending for championships, though Heinze has repeatedly prioritized the process over promises.
“We just started walking and to accomplish the feat of winning a title or trophy will take 10 months,” said Heinze. “I am not a fortune teller and I am not like (those on the outside) that thinks about a title that gets decided 10 months from now.”
Heinze may not want to talk about MLS Cup or any other piece of silverware just yet, but that will probably not remove the lofty expectations that Atlanta United faces. The Five Stripes have been one of the more competitive sides in MLS since their inception, and fans in Atlanta will be eager to see the team resume that role after the frustrating season that took place in 2020.
Of course, for that to happen players like Ezequiel Barco, Miles Robinson, Brad Guzan, and Marcelino Moreno will have to do their parts. Heinze will also have to navigate through all the challenges an MLS season presents and avoid the pitfalls that so often plague foreign coaches who move to the league.
It all makes for a tough challenge, but one that Atlanta United is ready to tackle head on.
“After the season we had last year, we have a lot to prove,” left back George Bello told SBI. “We have a lot on our shoulders to show we are still a very talented team and can do a lot of great things in the league. The main thing is just getting back to that and obviously winning trophies and winning the league is a plus.”
Here is a closer look at 2021 Atlanta United:
2021 Atlanta United Season Preview
2020 Finish: 12th place in East (6-4-13, 22 points, missed the playoffs)
Key Acquisitions: Erik Lopez, Lisandro Lopez, Santiago Sosa, Ronald Hernandez, Alan Franco
Key Losses: Jeff Larentowicz, Jon Gallagher, Franco Escobar, Eric Remedi, Fernando Meza
Newcomer to Watch: Santiago Sosa
While much of the attention on Atlanta United centers around its attacking players, Sosa’s addition as a midfield disruptor is important. The 21-year-old Argentine joins the Five Stripes from River Plate, for which he seldom played, but Heinze is likely to turn to Sosa as the No. 6 on a regular basis given his familiarity with the youngster and the offseason departure of defensive midfielder Eric Remedi. Sosa will have to deliver fairly quickly, too, as Atlanta United needs to make stark improvements away from the ball following a rough 2020.
Pressure is On: Ezequiel Barco
It is probably hard right now to look at Ezequiel Barco’s stay with Atlanta United as a success. The Designated Player has struggled to make the type of impact that has been widely expected of him since his arrival as the most expensive signing in MLS history back in 2018, and getting the most out of the 22-year-old attacker will be key to Atlanta United’s chances of reaching its former heights. Barco has to find a way to discover his top form this season while regularly providing goals and assists because another subpar campaign may force the team to begin planning for life without him.
“We all know the quality Ezequiel has,” said Heinze. “What we have to do is get him at his best.”
If Atlanta United has a defined identity, 2020 was far from it. Really far.
Getting back to “Atlanta United soccer” is a main priority for the upcoming season after a tumultuous past year that saw losses pile up, head coach Frank De Boer axed in July, and Josef Martinez sidelined through injury in the very first game. It was a campaign to forget by and large, but the arrival of new manager Gabriel Heinze might just be able to start getting the team back to the heights it was once at.
The former Argentine national team defender enjoyed a productive stay at Velez Sarsfield by leading the team to two consecutive Copa Sudamericana qualifications, and the hope is that his methodology and tactics can help get the most out of an Atlanta United side that still boasts plenty of talent.
“He likes to play aggressive, on the front foot,” said Bello. “He loves having the ball, which is why he wants us to go aggressive when we press because he wants us to have more of the ball. What really caught me with him is he really wants us to think with our head more than our feet.
“He is a really thinking coach so if one of us goes into another position then he wants another one to cover that position. He does not really care where you end up as long as you are covering for your teammates.”
What may be just as notable as Heinze’s return, of course, is Martinez being 100 percent healthy again. The prolific striker has recovered from the ACL injury that ruled him out for practically all of 2020, and has taken part in “every session” this preseason according to Heinze.
A motivated Martinez is a dangerous Martinez, and the Venezuelan will likely be hungry to showcase his characteristic deadly goal-scoring abilities and fiery demeanor this season to remind everyone that he is still the same player that has terrorized MLS defenses for years. That bodes very well for Atlanta United.
“He has been looking sharp,” said Bello. “I am really proud of him with how far he has come because it is almost like he never felt. He comes back and he is talking to us on the field, being a leader. It does not even look like he has been injured before, so it is really good to see that.”
Martinez will of course need help in the attack from fellow Designated Players Marcelino Moreno and Ezequiel Barco, and there is lots of pressure on the latter attacker to step up and perform after yet another disappointing season in 2020. Barco has not been able to deliver a really strong campaign with Atlanta United, and that will have to change if the team is going to maximize its potential.
Moreno, meanwhile, is looking to build on the promising signs he showed after arriving last September to help fill the shoes of departed playmaker Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez. The new No. 10 finished his debut MLS campaign with two goals and an assist in five starts and six appearances, all of which came while he was still adjusting to the league.
Another player that figures to be in the spotlight is Alan Franco. Atlanta United has been searching for a centerback for several weeks now, and has notably missed on several transfer targets. Franco, who was officially announced as an Atlanta signing on Thursday, appears to be the answer.
“The centerback Alan Franco is already signed from a week ago,” said Heinze on March 27, though no official announcement has yet been made.
Plenty of returning faces will also have to raise their levels if Atlanta United is to enjoy a better season, including blossoming centerback Miles Robinson, veteran goalkeeper Brad Guzan, up-and-coming left back George Bello, and midfield workhorse Emerson Hyndman.
That said, if Atlanta United is to improve this year while also navigating through competitions like the Concacaf Champions League it will be with a team that is fairly young. Only Guzan, backup netminder Alec Kann, and offseason center forward addition Lisandro Lopez are older than 30 on the current squad.
“In the analysis my staff and I have done we have really liked the youth in this institution,” said Heinze, “while also knowing at the same time that the process is longer and requires more time, which takes you further from where you want to be.”
Heinze may be concentrating on the process, but ultimately Atlanta United is likely to be judged on how serious of a championship contender it is. There are a lot of good pieces in place to make another potential run, but getting them all to fit together in Year 1 of Heinze’s project is the challenge for an organization known for being among Major League Soccer’s elite.
“I feel like everyone is on board with it,” said Bello. “I feel like we can do something special this season.”
Atlanta United Roster
Goalkeeper: Brad Guzan, Ben Lundgaar, Alec Kann
Defenders: Ronald Hernandez, Alex DeJohn, Anton Walkes, Brooks Lennon, Miles Robinson, George Bello, George Campbell, Mikey Ambrose, Efrain Morales, Alan Franco
Midfielders: Ezequiel Barco, Marcelino Moreno, Emerson Hyndman, Jurgen Damm, Santiago Sosa, Matheus Rossetto, Franco Ibarra, Jake Mulraney, Tyler Wolff, Mo Adams, Machop Chol
Forwards: Josef Martinez, Lisandro Lopez, Erick Torres, Erik Lopez, Jackson Conway