Atlanta United: Three big questions for 2020

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Editorial (January 29, 2020)- Atlanta United has been a hot topic of MLS since its inception. From doubts as to whether soccer would be a viable sporting franchise in the south, to claims they helped spur exponential growth in the league, they’re always a talking point. 2020 will be no different.

Three questions for Atlanta United in 2020

Atlanta United will look vastly different in 2020. Michael Parkhurst has retired, while Darlington Nagbe and Julian Gressel were traded. They also transferred Leonardo Gonzalez-Pirez to Tijuana in Liga MX and most recently sold their first-ever DP, Tito Villalba to Libertad in Paraguay. You also can’t go without mentioning the losses of Brek Shea and Justin Meram, despite them being role-players for most of 2019.

It’s a significant overhaul that has come with very little in the way of reinforcements, as the deal with Tijuana landed them Fernando Meza, who came to Tijuana hours prior to their deal with LGP. There is also the trade acquisitions of Brooks Lennon, and the signing of Hearts winger, Jack Mulraney. They also brought in Edgar Castillo, brought back Anton Walkes, and signed Adam Jahn to back up Josef. All in all, the return on what was moved doesn’t look pretty, leaving plenty of questions for Frank De Boer and the Five Stripes.

With their current roster going into CCL, can they compete, and can they survive in MLS?

This might be the biggest question I have going forward. Atlanta United has experienced the most roster turnover of any MLS team that is entering CCL. And thanks to their deep run, they had a shorter offseason than most. Plenty of MLS teams end up doing this and then faltering in the offseason. Sporting KC made a significant roster overhaul in 2019, and got smashed in the league after getting smashed in the semi-finals. Toronto as well the year prior. Atlanta United, to me, is the MLS team in CCL that is most in danger of experiencing that drop-off in 2020 for a couple of reasons.

One, they aren’t remotely as deep as they had been in the past. Two, the eastern conference is significantly better on paper than it was last year. Three, they lost their most important midfield pieces (Nagbe and Gressel) and haven’t adequately replaced them. That leads me to my next big question for 2020.

How do they plan to replace Gressel, Nagbe?

While the question above is a more general concern for Atlanta, this one boils down to a reason why I think the question above is a more serious question. Atlanta United return both Larentowicz and Eric Remedi, which is very good. They also have Emerson Hyndman, who was very, very good last year. The recent acquisition of Matheus Rossetto is still a bit of an unknown given how little playing time he had last season. However, none of them is Darlington Nagbe. Nagbe had an incredible feel for the tempo of the game, which made him the perfect midfielder in their system. None of the guys on their roster can be that master of tempo, or at least have never shown it. If they don’t have that, I think it hurts their defense significantly.

The other thing here is, none of their guys up front, surrounding Josef, are “service” guys. Mulraney is the closest thing, and Brooks Lennon is more of a wing-back anyways, so I won’t consider him a true Gressel replacement. Barco, Pity, and Mulraney are goal-first guys, and Pity struggled to try to be a link-up type player in his first year. So, if they’re going to get their best out of him, he needs to be a major focal point. Josef can’t quite have that to produce as he can. Which is why the move of Julian Gressel to D.C. United might have significantly shifted the balance of power in the east away from Atlanta.

Can Pity Martinez make a real impact, and not throw ‘Pity Parties’

Pity Martinez was an exciting acquisition last offseason. The assumption was that Atlanta was going to lose Almiron and their manager, but not miss a single step. That didn’t happen. Based on hype and price, Pity was a bust last season. He failed to score double-digit goals or provide double-digit assists, a stat mark expected of someone with a $15m price-tag. Occasionally he found a run of form, but he was less talked about for his goals than he was his blow-ups on the sideline after being taken off for not making an impact in a game.

Martinez has a ton of talent, arguably the most talent in the league for a player not named Carlos Vela. But the struggles were there in year one. And with all the change happening for Atlanta this offseason in terms of player personnel, they absolutely have to get the most out of Pity this season. If it means changing your formation? Do it. If it means sacrificing your ego and system (looking at you, Frank)? Do it. Whatever it is you need to do to get something out of Pity, do it. Because I’d argue that Atlanta’s success in 2020 squarely falls on the shoulders of Pity.

2020 Prediction

I think Atlanta should be good for 45 points, minimum. They’re still good, just may not be great. The danger is how deep that CCL run goes with their depth. It could potentially be better for them to crash out of CCL early than go on a deep run. I know people may not like that thought process, but it would allow them to focus on the league, and playing every weekend, not being worried about high-stakes mid-week matches as they try to put together a very new to each other squad.

Prediction: 48 Points, 5th in the East, Eliminated in CCL Quarterfinals by Club América.

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