Weekly rankings: Atlanta United’s best all-time moves

New feature from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Nov 11, 2018 Atlanta: Atlanta United Josef Martinez celebrates scoring the team’s first goal against goalkeeper Sean Johnson on a penalty kick for a 1-0 lead over New York City with teammates Miguel Almiron and Julian Gressel during the first half in their MLS Eastern Conference Semifinal playoff match on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, in Atlanta.  Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Nov 11, 2018 Atlanta: Atlanta United Josef Martinez celebrates scoring the team’s first goal against goalkeeper Sean Johnson on a penalty kick for a 1-0 lead over New York City with teammates Miguel Almiron and Julian Gressel during the first half in their MLS Eastern Conference Semifinal playoff match on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Editor’s note: In a new weekly feature, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Doug Roberson will take a question from the readers asking him to rank whatever they want ranked, using his experience from 10 years covering the franchise.

Today’s ranking: What are the best personnel moves made by Atlanta United’s front office?

After you read, share your rankings, or your opinions on Roberson’s rankings to droberson@ajc.com, and he’ll read some of them on the next Southern Fried Soccer podcast.


The five best personnel moves made by Atlanta United’s front office (in inverse order):

Atlanta United Vice President Carlos Bocanegra (left) and President Darren Eales (right) pose with Darlington Nagbe in December.

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5. Hiring Carlos Bocanegra. He gets almost all of the blame for the misses and very little credit for the successes, but his work building Atlanta United’s roster during its first three years and what he has put together this season, which may be one of the team’s most talented rosters, can’t be denied.

When Darren Eales hired him, it was a bit of a shock. Bocanegra recently had finished a successful playing career that included more than 100 appearances for the U.S. men’s national team. He had little experience working in a front office. But he was able to execute Eales’ vision for creating a roster full of players who would attack, attack, attack while also trying to find players with potential who could be sold for a profit. It was a dangerous philosophy because not every young player is going to become an asset. Atlanta United got a few right and got some more wrong. But that’s the risk.

Bocanegra has since pivoted to follow President Garth Lagerwey’s preference of buying less-risky, less-expensive, less potentially profitable players and has composed a roster that has experience, youth and depth. It is among the most talented in the league.

Atlanta United outgoing manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino is applauded after hammering the Golden Spike during the MLS championship rally Monday, Dec. 10, 2018, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

4. Hiring Gerardo Martino. This was a coup. Getting Martino, formerly the manager of Barcelona and Argentina’s men’s national team was a positively shocking hire because of his resume. Martino proved the perfect hire and the team’s MLS Cup in 2018 was the proof.

Martino, working with Bocanegra, put together a roster balanced with players from South America, veteran Americans, and a few from Europe to shock MLS with its speed and ruthlessness. The team surpassed more than 70 goals in 2017 and ‘18.

The team’s attacking style became one that other teams tried to copy.

Then, Martino was wise enough to pivot with his tactics midway through 2018 after recognizing that the team needed to be more defensive if it wanted to win the MLS Cup. Martino switched from a 4-3-3 to a 5-2-3-1 that took advantage of the speed of Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, Darlington Nagbe’s ability to keep possession, and the passing of Julian Gressel and Michael Parkhurst.

Atlanta United President Darren Eales address fans gathered for Atlanta United’s new uniform launch event Saturday, Feb.19, 2022 at Piedmont Park in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

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Credit: Daniel Varnado

3. Hiring Darren Eales. If anyone other than Arthur Blank, Steve Cannon or Jim Smith says they knew anything about Eales before his hiring was announced in 2014, chances are they are fibbing.

Eales’ background included playing professionally for teams in the U.S., as well as going to college here. His experience helping to run teams included West Bromwich Albion and Tottenham Hotspur, where he worked mostly behind the scenes but in important roles.

Eales came to Atlanta and became the face of the franchise. His grassroots marketing, combined with his intelligence, eye for detail and team-building skills, established Atlanta United’s brand, names, colors and style in the city and the Southeast.

Of course, he also was responsible for hiring Bocanegra, Martino and ensuring that Blank’s goals and beliefs were reflected throughout the club.

His tenure didn’t end as well as many assumed after so much success the first three years, but the template was established.

Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez, with one hand on his chest and waving with the other, thanked everyone in the stands after the season finale at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Martinez has reportedly agreed to join Inter Miami. (Miguel Martinez/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

2. Taking Josef Martinez on loan. One hundred and three goals later it seems like a tap-in, but taking Josef Martinez on loan AND playing him as a single striker was an aggressive gamble by Bocanegra and use by Martino.

Martinez used was mostly as a second striker or sometimes as a winger at Torino, which agreed to the loan, and where he scored 13 goals with six assists.

It quickly became clear that Martinez was perfectly suited to lead Atlanta United’s attack. That loan was turned into a transfer after a few games.

His speed to run past defenders and into space, toughness in holding off centerbacks when he needed to hold the ball and jumping ability to win crosses and free kicks made him one of the best strikers in MLS history. His chemistry with Almiron, Villalba and Gressel made them the best attacking quartet in MLS for two years.

It culminated with Martinez being named MVP in 2018 and helping the club win MLS Cup. He followed that by helping the club win the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup in 2019.

His production made his combustibility and temper worth the headaches they could sometimes cause, particularly if he or the team wasn’t playing well.

Atlanta United midfielder Miguel Almiron (center) raises the MLS Cup as they celebrate after their 2-0 win over the Portland Timbers during the 2018 MLS Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, December 8, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM


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1. Buying/selling Miguel Almiron. This was more than his 21 goals and 28 assists and his ability to single-handedly turn defense into offense with his speed and magical left foot. I don’t know how many times the first two seasons I sat in a press box while on the road, and heard the same sound from reporters who hadn’t seen Almiron play. Almiron would receive the ball, take a touch with his left foot, then another, then another to get himself squared toward the opponent’s goal, and then hit fourth gear and be gone.

The resulting sound, “Ooooh.”

Acquiring him from Lanus and selling him to Newcastle provided a proof of concept for the other teams in MLS. It was possible to buy talent from South America, in this case for a reported $8 million, develop it and sell it for a substantial profit, in this case as much as $28 million.

It can be argued this became a blessing and a curse for Atlanta United, which may have taken too many chances on players that it bought, didn’t develop and wasn’t able to sell.

Honorable mention: Signing the quartet of American veterans Greg Garza, Brad Guzan, Jeff Larentowicz and Michael Parkhurst.

Jury is still out: on Lagerwey and Giorgos Giakoumakis.

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Atlanta United’s 2024 schedule

Feb. 24 Columbus 1, Atlanta United 0

March 9 Atlanta United 4, New England 1

March 17 vs. Orlando, 7 p.m., FS1

March 23 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

March 31 vs. Chicago, 3:30 p.m., Fox

April 6 at NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

April 14 vs. Philadelphia, 2:30 p.m., Fox

April 20 vs. Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

April 27 at Chicago, 8:30 p.m.

May 4 vs. Minnesota, 7:30 p.m.

May 11 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

May 15 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

May 18 at Nashville, 1:30 p.m.

May 25 vs. LAFC, 7:30 p.m.

May 29 at Miami, 7:30 p.m.

June 2 vs Charlotte, 4:30 p.m., Fox

June 15 vs. Houston, 7:30 p.m.

June 19 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 22 at St. Louis, 8:30 p.m.

June 29 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

July 3 at New England, 7:30 p.m.

July 6 at Real Salt Lake, 9:30 p.m.

July 13 at Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 17 vs. NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

July 20 vs. Columbus, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 24 at L.A. Galaxy, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 31 at Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14 vs. Nashville, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 18 vs. Miami, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 28 at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 2 vs. Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 5 vs. Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 19 at Orlando, 6 p.m.