Atlanta United forward Ezequiel Barco (from left), forward Josef Martinez, and midfielder Pity Martinez pose for a portrait at the team training ground on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, in Marietta. Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton/Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton/Curtis Compton

Atlanta United slipped last year, but it didn’t fall

Both these things are true. Atlanta United slipped last season; Atlanta United nearly won another MLS Cup last season. 

Atlanta United managed 58 points in 2019, down 11 from the previous season, only three above the yield in 2017, the inaugural year. It scored 58 goals in 2019, down 12 from the 70 in each of its first two seasons. Its goal differential was 15, the lowest by some distance in its existence. It was a good team, yes, but not nearly as dynamic. That said … 

If not for a saved Josef Martinez penalty in the 11th minute of the Eastern Conference final against Toronto, Atlanta United would surely have played for a second consecutive MLS Cup and done it at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, site of its triumph on Dec. 8, 2018. Had Martinez given his team a 2-0 lead, that would have been that. Atlanta United dominated the game anyway — it had 59 percent of possession and outshot its visitor 19-4 — but it lost. That happens in soccer. 

Also: Had the Eastern final been a two-leg affair, as it was the year before, Atlanta United might well have advanced despite losing the first match. But all rounds of the MLS Cup were knockout affairs last season, so no joy there. Then again, the top two seeds — LAFC and New York City — had been eliminated in the conference semis. That happens, too. 

The path to a second consecutive title closed as abruptly as it had opened. Even so, we can’t say that Atlanta United 2019 ever looked like the class of MLS. It won two of its first eight matches in all competitions; one of those victories was a 1-0 decision in the second leg of a CONCACAF Champions League tie against Monterrey that it trailed 3-0. The MLS Cup holder opened league play on March 3; it didn’t win an MLS game until April 13. 

Much of this was inevitable. Tata Martino, the coach who did more to shape an expansion franchise than anyone else, left to guide the Mexican national team. Miguel Almiron, at worst the second-best player in the club’s brief history, bolted for Newcastle of the Premier League. These men were replaced by Frank de Boer, who was fired after ridiculously brief tenures at Inter Milan and Crystal Palace, and Gonzalo Martinez, nicknamed Pity, the South American footballer of the year for Argentina’s River Plate. 

Barely a month in, Atlanta United supporters were posting #deBoerOut on social media. By midseason, Atlanta United players were lining up to express reservations. Before the All-Star game in Orlando, defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, known as LGP, told MLS Soccer: “Things have changed a lot, the way the club has played the game, and we don’t like it.” Also: “When there was no reason to change, things changed.” 

This, too, was inevitable. Under de Boer, Atlanta United passed a bit more and shot a bit less. The new man is Dutch, having played and coached at Ajax, the cradle of possession-based football. To be fair, de Boer wasn’t inflexible as some supporters. It took a while, but he changed formations. In the Eastern quarterfinal against New England, he switched midway from a 3-4-2-1 to a back four, and the game’s only goal was scored by a charging Franco Escobar, who began the game as a central defender. 

Pity Martinez took a while to settle. He managed five goals in league play, less than half of Almiron’s 2018 total. Come the playoffs, he was an unused sub against New England. He started and played 79 minutes and had an assist against Philadelphia. He played the full 90, with another assist, in the loss to Toronto. 

In sum, 2019 was about what you’d expect from a team working with a new coach and a new attacking midfielder. It wasn’t by any means a calamity — Atlanta United finished second in the East, same as in 2018, and claimed the U.S Open Cup and the Campeones Cup — but it wasn’t a raging success. Then came more comings and goings. 

The new season begins without defender Michael Parkhurst, who retired; midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who forced a move to Columbus, and LGP, gone to Tijuana. Julian Gressel, last season’s second-leading scorer, was traded to D.C. United. Hector Villalba, who scored 13 goals in 2017, was sold to Libertad of Paraguay. Said de Boer, speaking this week: “Welcome to the soccer life. That’s how it goes.” 

Then: “We have a very good roster, but maybe not so widespread as last season. Maybe the individual quality can be higher. We have 16-17 really good MLS players, and then we have some youngsters.” 

There’s still Josef Martinez. Pity Martinez can surely do more. (Said de Boer: “He’s really involved right now. … He’s showing a really positive energy.”) Ezequiel Barco, who commanded a $15 million transfer fee at age 18, turns 21 next month. Defender Miles Robinson is 22 and coming off a breakthrough season. Defender Fernando Meza was acquired in what was essentially a trade for LGP. Said de Boer: “There’s quality in this squad, really good quality.” 

There’s a reason Vegas lists Atlanta United as second-favorite to win the league, trailing only LAFC. Even in a season of heavy transition, this club was a penalty miss by a great scorer from another appearance in the MLS Cup final. Atlanta United will never again be the revelation it was in 2017, and there mightn’t be another trophy-lifting as joyous as in 2018. That said, this franchise shouldn’t descend to mediocrity anytime soon. As befits a club owned by the co-founder of Home Depot, Atlanta United is built to last.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.