Questions for Atlanta United’s Garth Lagerwey

With the exception of hiring Garth Lagerwey, things have been relatively quiet for Atlanta United the past few weeks.

It added winger Derrick Etienne, but it’s not yet clear if that move will result in a domino effect of one of the team’s wingers being moved.

Now that the World Cup is down to the quarterfinals, expect Atlanta United to start revving up the train engines.

Remember that Lagerwey was hired to be the CEO, not the general manager. That means that he has broader responsibilities with Atlanta United than he had at Seattle, where he won two MLS Cups and a Champions League as a GM, and at Real Salt Lake, where he won an MLS Cup.

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So, Lagerwey won’t scout players. He won’t decide salaries of players, though I’m sure he will have some input and advice for Vice President/Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra. Asking Lagerwey to get that deeply involved in every scouting and signing would be like asking owner Arthur Blank to personally approve of managers hired to run individual stores of The Home Depot.

When it comes to Designated Players, I expect Lagerwey will become more active, mostly as it relates to the business side because of the finances involved in transfer fees and salaries.

Here are a few questions that the team needs to answer in the next few weeks:

1. Is Bocanegra staying? Bocanegra remains under contract with the club. He notably was absent during Lagerwey’s introductory news conference last week at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The reason given by the team was that Bocanegra and manager Gonzalo Pineda, who also wasn’t at the intro, were meeting to discuss personnel. Seemed a bit odd but also plausible. Lagerwey was asked about Bocanegra’s future. He said it was way too early and way too public to delve into anything like that. A few weeks ago, Bocanegra said he looked forward to working with the new president and was excited to learn from that person. Bocanegra said he wanted to hear an outsider’s perspective.

Some of the team’s supporters want Bocanegra gone. Among other things, they blame him for Darlington Nagbe and Julian Gressel being traded before the 2020 season. They also blame him for the rosters that have failed to make the playoffs in two of the past three seasons. He is the vice president, so fingers should be pointed. It also should be noted that the team won three major trophies in its first three years, that 2020 shouldn’t be counted against anyone because of COVID-19, and that the team has been playing the past two years with a striker who still doesn’t seem 100%. Oh, and that last season there were at least 20 different instances of injuries that sidelined players for at least two games.

The level of acrimony from those supporters toward Bocanegra seems toxic.

Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bocanegra gets one more season – one in which I’m sure he hopes players can stay healthy – to prove himself again.

2. What to do with Josef Martinez? Deciding whether to keep Martinez and trying to repair what seems to be a broken relationship, or trading or transferring him likely will be Lagerwey’s move to make, based upon Bocanegra’s recommendation, because Martinez is more than just a player. He’s the face of the franchise.

He has said he loves Atlanta and the franchise. He has said that he will play for Atlanta United for as long as the franchise wants him.

That began to change, or appeared to change, during the season, when Martinez said that the recently completed season may be his last.

Martinez may have been angling for a new contract, in a manner similar, but not nearly as negative, to what Cristiano Ronaldo was doing to try to leave Manchester United. The 2023 season will Martinez’s last under contract. The team holds another option for 2024.

Martinez was suspended for a week after getting into an argument with Pineda in the minutes after a loss at Portland. Pineda later said that Martinez’s outburst was one of a few negative actions that resulted in the disciplinary behavior.

Martinez may only have been frustrated with another season of less-than-stellar results. Perhaps, if he returns and the team starts to play like it used to, and starts to win like it used to, he will seem more positive.

It’s a gamble.

Atlanta United, and the Blank businesses, put a lot of value in culture. A franchise can’t have a player consistently acting out. It can lead to problems in all areas. Former manager Gabriel Heinze’s disrespect for many of the areas of the team is a perfect example. Once a culture goes sour, it can take a long time to fix.

3. Should Thiago Almada be sold? Almada was named MLS Newcomer of the Year and played well enough that he is with the Argentina team playing in the World Cup. It’s the first time in MLS history that a player currently in the league is playing for Argentina in the World Cup.

I’m not sure his stock will be higher than it is now.

If Atlanta United receives a lucrative transfer offer, and Bocanegra has said Almada was scouted last year, I think it should sell him now. A lot can happen between today and the next World Cup.

The question then turns to who will replace Almada as the attacking midfielder?

The team still has Marcelino Moreno, who was better as an attacking midfielder than as a winger. Ezequiel Barco also is still on loan to River Plate. I think it is very unlikely that either would be slotted as an attacking midfielder. The team has been linked to Agustin Almendra, who is with Boca Juniors. He is a central midfielder, which Atlanta United already has a glut of, and not an attacking midfielder.

4. How to fix the midfield? The team has many, some might say too many, midfielders who are long on potential but short on results. That group includes Matheus Rossetto, Santiago Sosa, Franco Ibarra and Emerson Hyndman. Combined, the quartet was paid roughly $2.5 million as of September, according to the MLSPA salary database. Throw in Moreno and that total surpasses $3 million. Combined, they scored three goals and had 10 assists. Moreno scored two of the goals and produced eight of the assists.

By comparison, Amar Sejdic, who was paid $85,444, produced two assists. Lagerwey said that the more good players a team has, it typically means better results. There are some players who either need to start producing or be moved.