Editorial — Atlanta United FC went on a dream run to the MLS Cup in just its second season.
Along the way, the club saw star striker Josef Martinez break the league goal-scoring record and win league MVP honors. In doing so, he beat out since-departed playmaker Miguel Almiron.
2019 Atlanta United FC Season Preview: Three Big Questions
Even though Atlanta ended last year as the best team in Major League Soccer and added a $15 million talent in Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez in January, some high-profile changes have left the team with some serious questions to answer.
With its first CONCACAF Champions League match against Herediano of Costa Rica set for Feb. 21, those questions will have to be answered quickly.
Does De Boer have Tata’s magic touch?
The biggest change made by the reigning MLS champions came at the top. Gerardo “Tata” Martino, the club’s beloved manager, left and joined the Mexican National Team. Meanwhile, Dutch legend Frank de Boer was brought in as the new man in charge.
Martino was revered in Atlanta both for his tactics and for his leadership. Before he ever coached a single game for the Five Stripes he made his first big impact on the club by helping to recruit Almiron ahead of the inaugural season.
Martino then established the club as an attacking, high-pressing side. He had no reservations with employing a 4-2-3-1 formation throughout his first year and, at times, last season. However, Martino took a pragmatic turn in 2018. He opted for a more defensive 3-5-2 formation and incorporated more long-ball tactics in the playoffs.
De Boer had enormous success with a traditional Dutch 3-4-3 on his way to four straight league titles in the Netherlands. So far, Atlanta has lined up in that formation for most of the preseason. Atlanta United was dominant in its first two preseason matches against mostly reserve players from the Seattle Sounders FC and Club Tijuana.
Against stiffer opponents in LAFC’s first team, Atlanta was held to a 2-2 draw. De Boer expressed unhappiness with his team’s defense on LAFC’s second goal. With some key players aging and everybody adjusting to the new formation, the Dutch manager will have some tough decisions to make with his defense.
There’s no place like home ?
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) February 9, 2019
Can the Pity-Barco combination replace Almiron?
Atlanta sold Almiron for a record fee just weeks ago. The team will surely miss the man that Josef Martinez in November called “the best player in MLS right now, end of debate.” Stepping into the breach are two $15 million acquisitions from Argentina — Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco.
Pity — who will inevitably go primarily by his nickname to avoid confusion with Josef Martinez — was signed in January and has looked sharp in the preseason. His biggest highlight was a curling left-footed free kick against LAFC.
Barco is starting his second season with Atlanta. He showed flashes of star potential in his first season. However, he spent most of the playoffs on the bench. He’s been perhaps Atlanta’s most exciting player during their first few preseason matches. Baco and Pity may be able to step in to fill the attacking void left by Almiron.
What will the central midfield look like?
Atlanta fans got an unwelcome shock on Feb. 8 when Dirty South Soccer reported that central midfielder Darlington Nagbe was trying to force his way out of town.
The U.S. National Team veteran was superb in his role as a two-way midfielder last season. His likely departure leaves a giant hole in the middle for the Five Stripes.
Meanwhile, Eric Remedi and Jeff Larentowicz have started in central midfield together during the preseason. However, it seems a little too optimistic to think that the 35-year-old Larentowicz would be able to go 90 minutes on a weekly basis. Add in extra Champions League matches to the schedule, too.
Even if Larentowicz was able to handle the heavy load of minutes, he would not replicate the passing and dribbling that Nagbe brings. In fact, Atlanta doesn’t have anybody else who does what Nagbe does.
The good news on this front is that Atlanta has plenty of salary cap space after the sale of Almiron, the waiving of veteran utility man Chris McCann and the trade of often-injured left-back Greg Garza. The proceeds from those moves should leave the club with well over $1 million in allocation money. However, no credible rumors have surfaced regarding what Atlanta will do.
All of the changes, aging players and not being in midseason form will make the CONCACAF Champions League a tough challenge for Atlanta United.
The conditions set up for them to face disappointment early in that tournament. Meanwhile, the demands of that competition will likely cause the Five Stripes to miss out on the Supporters’ Shield again this year.
However, the MLS regular season will give them plenty of time to get it together for the playoffs and repeat as MLS Cup champions.
Pity can score from anywhere ?♂️ pic.twitter.com/VBXGLe9tlK
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) February 9, 2019
PHOTO: Team Captain Michael Parkhurst of Atlanta United lifts the MLS Eastern Conference trophy with members of the team after the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Eastern Conference Final Leg 2 match between Atlanta United and New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena on Nov. 29, 2018, in Harrison, New Jersey. Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images.