A second consecutive whiff on a foreign coaching hire saw Atlanta United make an unprecedented move last year, but the early returns from that decision have renewed some belief in the organization.
Atlanta United got off to a very rocky start in 2021, experiencing plenty of growing pains under Argentine head coach Gabriel Heinze. Those difficulties and a lack of results ultimately proved too much, leading the Five Stripes to axe Heinze after just a few months in charge before replacing him with the side’s first permanent domestic-based manager.
Gonzalo Pineda was brought on board in August, and quickly helped to revitalize Atlanta United. The team ultimately made it out from below the red line in the Eastern Conference and into the playoffs, creating optimism for what could be done in his first full season in charge.
“No one in the league recorded more points than us from the moment I was named Atlanta United’s head coach,” said Pineda. “That leaves me very satisfied. Not because it is a personal stat but because the players reacted to a poor start in terms of points. Being able to turn that around and overcome adversity is a positive from my players and that leaves me very happy.
“We have a lot of hopes that that was the beginning of a good phase.”
In order to build on last season’s strong finish, Atlanta United has kept Miles Robinson, Brad Guzan, and much of the core of the roster while making some key additions. The most notable, of course, is playmaker Thiago Almada, who arrived from Argentine club Velez Sarsfield on an MLS record transfer fee.
Almada will join the returning Josef Martinez, Luiz Araujo, and Marcelino Moreno in what has the potential to be the deadliest attack in the entire league in 2022. Former MLS record transfer fee signing Ezequiel Barco will not be part of that group, though, after being sent on loan to River Plate for the entire season.
Barco is not the only starter that Atlanta United said bye to this offseason. U.S. men’s national team left back George Bello has moved on to Europe as part of this winter’s supermarket sweep for American players. Also gone is Anton Walkes, who while not a big name was serviceable for Atlanta United last year.
Still, the belief is that Pineda can return Atlanta United to what it was during the successful first few years of the team’s existence. The Fives Stripes have taken a bit of a dip in recent seasons, but they plan on breaking that trend once and for all.
“We have a lot of hunger to do things right,” said Martinez in Spanish. “We want to improve on what we looked like and to try to reach MLS Cup.”
Here is a closer look at 2022 Atlanta United:
2022 Atlanta United Season Preview
2021 Finish: Fifth place in East (13-9-12, 51 points, lost in Eastern Conference first round)
Key Acquisitions: Thiago Almada, Ronald Hernandez, Andrew Gutman, Osvaldo Alonso
Key Losses: Ezequiel Barco, George Bello, Anton Walkes
Newcomer to Watch: Thiago Almada
If you arrive on a reported MLS record transfer fee of $16 million, people are sure to stand up and take notice. The Argentine youth international will give Atlanta United another dangerous piece for the attack, one that can make a difference by scoring goals himself or setting up others. Still only 20, Almada is someone the team considers to be one of South America’s top up-and-coming talents and the young Designated Player could be a staple with the side for years to come.
Pressure is on: Josef Martinez
Fully recovered from the devastating knee injury suffered in 2020, Martinez will be expected to return to his very best at the tip of the Atlanta United attack. The Venezuelan striker finished last year with 12 goals in 24 appearances, which is not a bad haul for someone who was working his way back to 100 percent during the season, but he will have to up that production and get it closer to his usual high standard in order for the team to reach its potential.
What goes up must come down, and Atlanta United continued to free fall from its high perch during the first half of the 2021 season under then-head coach Heinze.
An abrupt change of plans saw Heinze ousted last July and replaced a month later with Pineda in the type of sudden coaching switch that is seen more commonly around the world but rarely in MLS. The move paid off, however, as the Five Stripes quickly found their footing under the Mexican manager en route to making a trip, albeit a short one, back to the playoffs after missing out for the first time in franchise history in 2020.
Pineda has now had a full offseason to mold the roster to his liking, and has brought in a blend of different players. MLS veterans like Osvaldo Alonso, Dom Dwyer, and Bobby Shuttlsworth have been added for depth purposes, while younger and lesser-known commodities like Andrew Gutman were acquired as well.
The biggest reinforcement came from overseas, however. Promising youngster Almada was brought on board for for a sizable transfer fee that is going to come with the type of immediate expectations that former Atlanta United attacker Miguel Almiron lived up to but that Barco did not.
Almada is dynamic, has a nose for goal, and can play both as a true 10 and winger, giving Pineda quite a dangerous tool in an attack that already boasts plenty of lethal South American talents.
“He can play on the outside, he can play on the inside, and he is goal dangerous. Really goal dangerous,” Pineda said. “I think he can be very good at serving passes into Josef Martinez, the 9s, the wingers in behind, when he plays in between the lines. At the same time he can (also be) very good playing on the flank, taking players on, and starting to deliver service.
“The other thing is he is very good at arriving inside the box, so we think we are going to have a lot more presence inside the box with him.”
Of course, a huge piece of that attacking presence figures to be Martinez. The Venezuelan striker is fully recovered from the torn ACL suffered two campaigns ago, and is now aiming to get back to his goal-scoring best for Atlanta United as part of that aforementioned formidable attacking quartet.
“He had the bad injury and it obviously coincided with us not making the playoffs and there is no mystery behind that,” said Atlanta United president Darren Eales. “Without Josef as sort of our stalwart striker, it was very difficult for us in that season. I think last year he came back to (show) the glimpses of the Josef we know.”
“…We know he is only going to get better.”
The Five Stripes will need more than just their front four, though, if they wish to get back to being the model club in MLS.
Guzan and Robinson will have to help lead a back line that has lost a significant piece in Bello, who transferred to Arminia Bielefeld in the German Bundesliga, and midfielders like Santiago Sosa, Matheus Rossetto, and newcomer Alonso are going to have to do their part in the center of the park. It would certainly help, too, if Emerson Hyndman is able to quickly rediscover his old form upon returning from the ACL injury suffered last year.
On paper, Atlanta United looks pretty loaded not only up front but across most lines. That does not necessarily guarantee success, but the team is confident it has the potential to return to the contending heights of old.
“We have a lot of hopes that we can take the next step,” said Pineda, “so that we can become champions this year.”
Atlanta United roster
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan, Bobby Shuttleworth, Dylan Castanheira, Justin Garces
Defenders: Ronald Hernandez, Alex DeJohn, Alan Franco, Brooks Lennon, Miles Robinson, Bryce Washington, George Campbell, Mikey Ambrose, Efrain Morales, Andrew Gutman, Caleb Wiley
Midfielders: Santiago Sosa, Thiago Almada, Matheus Rossetto, Marcelino Moreno, Amar Sejdic, Franco Ibarra, Emerson Hyndman, Jurgen Damm, Osvaldo Alonso, Jake Mulraney
Forwards: Jackson Conway, Machop Chol, Tyler Wolff, Jake Mulraney, Luiz Araujo, Josef Martinez, Dom Dwyer