This wasn’t the way any coach entrusted with a reigning champ wants to start. Under Frank de Boer, Atlanta United lost two of its first three matches, each defeat coming by two goals, and needed a 4-0 home victory over the eighth-place club in Costa Rica’s Primera Division to avoid falling out of the CONCACAF Champions League at the first hurdle.
If you’re keeping score (or charting air miles), here’s 10 days in the life of Atlanta United — Leg 2 of the CCL Round of 16 against Herediano of Costa Rica at Fifth Third Stadium in Kennesaw on Thursday, the MLS opener in Washington D.C. on a sodden Sunday, then a CCL quarterfinal Leg 1 in Mexico against Monterrey on Wednesday, then the MLS home opener against Cincinnati on Sunday. That, as mentioned previously, is the enhanced/exhausting regimen this ascendant franchise faces in Year 3, and everyone will have to grin and bear it.
Not apt to be smiling anytime soon is Frank de Boer. He’s working under what has been described as “a multi-year contract,” but nobody in this world knows better how short grace periods in soccer can be. He was fired in November 2016 by Inter Milan after 85 days and 11 games. He was fired 10 months later by Crystal Palace after 77 days and five matches.
This prompted Jose Mourinho, possessor of the world’s thinnest skin, to label de Boer “the worst manager in the history of the Premier League.” Full context: The then-out-of-work de Boer had told an interviewer that Mourinho was ruining the gifted young striker Marcus Rashford at Manchester United. Fuller context: Mourinho is now between coaching gigs and, under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Rashford seems conspicuously un-ruined; de Boer, meanwhile, is gainfully employed, at least for the moment.
That last bit was meant as a joke, sort of. MLS is nowhere near the European leagues in its hair-trigger intolerance. Things are so perilous in England that Sam Allardyce, known as Big Sam, has carved out a career as, of all things, an interim manager. His past three Premier League jobs have seen him take a club bound for relegation – every year, the bottom three EPL teams essentially get demoted to Triple-A — and avoid the drop. Then Big Sam is gone. (Indeed, it was he who preceded de Boer at Crystal Palace.)
That said, not every MLS club is Atlanta United, which went from start-up to MLS Cup in two dizzying seasons, breaking attendance records by the week. Before his team ever kicked a ball in anger, Arthur Blank made it clear he wasn’t bankrolling a garden-variety expansion crew. He expected immediate results, and he hired Tata Martino — who, having coached both Barcelona and Argentina, had filled two of the world’s most scrutinized positions – to implement the plan. Tata’s United made the playoffs in Year 1 and won the Cup in Year 2. Then Tata said ta-ta and is now coaching Mexico, the assignment that eats all coaches.
Enter de Boer, who has the pedigree. He played at Ajax and Barcelona and for the Netherlands; he won Eredivisie titles his first four seasons as Ajax’s manager. But there are really only three clubs capable of winning the Dutch league — PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord being the other two – and by Ajax standards de Boer’s years in charge didn’t approach his playing years, when the Amsterdam club won the UEFA Champions League in 1995 and lost in a shootout to Juventus the next year. Nor did any de-Boer-managed team hit the UCL heights the latest Ajax edition did Tuesday, when it ousted threepeat champ Real Madrid in a watershed 4-1 thrashing.
Let’s be clear. There should be no rush to judge de Boer. The CONCACAF Champions League is always treacherous for MLS squads. Only three have made the final over the past decade; all three lost. Monterrey, by way of contrast, won the thing three years running. Some of this can be traced to timing. Atlanta United’s first competitive game of the year was against Herediano, which was eight games into the Primera Clausura, or half-season. Monterrey has already played nine games in Liga MX’s Clausura.
Given time to settle into the MLS campaign, de Boer should be fine. Still, following Martino was never going to be easy: Atlanta United could play 50 years without knowing any seasons sweeter than its first two. The tactical approach will be slightly different, and the loss of Miguel Almiron, now the toast of Newcastle upon Tyne, cannot be understated. And sometimes, in soccer as in life, you hit a patch of bad luck. On a dry night, Brad Guzan saves the shot that was D.C. United’s second goal.
Atlanta United, we say again, is not just another MLS club. It’s the champion. It spends big — Pity Martinez of Argentina’s River Plate was imported as Almiron’s presumptive replacement — and draws crowds that are bigger than big. Its new coach inherited an excellent roster and a terrible early schedule, but the latter part will eventually ease. That’s when de Boer, whose recent history isn’t of fast starts, needs to prove his worth. He wasn’t handed a Big Sam fixer-upper; he was entrusted with the jewel in MLS’ crown.
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