Atlanta United still in dynasty business, but questions abound

Atlanta United President Darren Eales has been to one big downtown victory parade - in December 2018. He'd like more. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)
Atlanta United President Darren Eales has been to one big downtown victory parade - in December 2018. He'd like more. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Following a brief intermission, another Atlanta United season is in sight. Training camp between the raindrops began this week. Nobody, other than those in goal, were using their hands during the first drills of a new year, so that was a good sign. And everybody was on message about the importance of winning everything in sight. That, after all, is the United way.

For a team that won an MLS championship two years ago and was a game away from the MLS Cup final last season, Atlanta United has endured a copious amount of upheaval. Success has been no buffer from turmoil.

The popular championship coach moves on to Mexico and the dynamic Miguel Almiron transfers to the hoity-toity English Premier League for an MLS-record fee. Tough to maintain any kind of consistency when the whole world is poaching your people.

Then before this year, a real front man for this franchise from the beginning, captain Michael Parkhurst, retires. And two players – Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Darlington Nagbe – who were at the literal center of Atlanta United’s lineup and who between them totaled 63 starts the past two seasons, are dispatched to the exotic soccer destination cities of Tijuana and Columbus, Ohio.

No one is untouchable in this game. Not even Atlanta United’s goal-scoring given Josef Martinez. (Relax. He’s not going anywhere. Yet. “I’ve said it before that I’m not about the money. If I was, I could be playing in a different league. But it’s about the care that I’ve received here,” Martinez said earlier this week, speaking on how the local fan affection has become so important to him. “Someday it will be my turn to leave. But until then, I’m very happy here.”)

Oh, and coming into this season there is a contract kerfuffle between the club and Julian Gressel, he of six goals and a team-leading 12 assists last season.

And we won’t even belabor the labor strife, as the hourglass sand runs out on the Jan. 31 deadline for a new collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players’ union. There is no guarantee that there’ll be an uninterrupted season for Atlanta United to rule.

So, amid all this hubbub, what’s the plan here for Atlanta United entering its fourth season?

We’ll go to the upper reaches of the team’s org chart for the answer, to team president Darren Eales.

It’s simple enough, really. “We want to be a club that creates a dynasty,” Eales said this week. “A team that people are talking about year in and year out as being a trophy-winning team.”

Growing what has been a phenomenal start-up into a consistent force is the challenge here. And a season like the approaching one calls that goal into question because change creates uncertainty.

Eales is bullish on 2020. Asked what excites him most about the coming season, he cites the prospect of seeing Atlanta United’s three designated players – those who are open to some salary-cap exceptions – lining up with some regularity this year.

“This year we have Ezequiel Barco, Pity Martinez and Josef Martinez all set. I’m really excited about that core being together,” Eales said. “If you look at last season due to various reasons – injuries, international call-ups – we only had seven matches out of our 34 that they all three started. And in those seven games, we won six and drew one.

“Think about it, if we can keep that core together this year, with Barco just getting better each year, Pity having another year under his belt and Josef being Josef, just an amazing guy who keeps scoring goals.”

There are, however, so many questions, even for what threatens to be the model American soccer franchise, the Chick-fil-A of hands-free sport.

Will one season behind him in Atlanta make a big difference for coach Frank de Boer?

Eales: “I think it will make a big difference. It’s always tough coming into a new league. In particular it was tough because we had just won the Cup as well. That’s always a hard act to follow.”

What to expect from last season’s big acquisition Pity Martinez, who warmed slowly to the MLS in ’19?

Eales: “I’m really excited for Pity. Even the first couple days of training, there’s the effort and energy he’s putting in, particularly on the defensive side. ... Last year, it was always a little difficult coming into a new league with absolutely no break (Martinez came here directly from competition with his Argentine club). I’m really excited. He’s had the break now, he looks energized.”

There’s a new name among the defenders, Fernando Meza, who will face comparisons with the departed Gonzalez Pirez. What should we expect?

“Fernando is someone with a lot of experience, a guy who is comfortable on the ball with the way we like to play out of the back as well. He’s going to be important for us as an experienced, central defender, knitting that back four together.”

Will there be more new names added to this roster soon? Or is Atlanta United standing pat?

Eales: “We’re probably looking at two to three more players, there will be some changes before we’re into the meat of the schedule.”

How long is this Gressel thing going to drag?

Eales: “It’s one of those things you get in the salary-cap environment. It’s complicated for us because we still have the CBA out there, because you don’t know what the salary cap is going to be. That’s something where you just need a bit of patience.”

Finally, before sliding into 2020, how exactly do we file away 2019? And is anything less than winning an MLS Cup OK, now that Atlanta has been soccer spoiled?

The ’19 club accumulated 12 fewer points in the standings and scored 11 fewer goals than the championship team of the year before. Atlanta United won ancillary competitions in the Campeones Cup and U.S. Open Cup, but failed to return to the MLS Cup final after getting knocked out 2-1 by Toronto.

Eales points out that the many stresses facing a defending MLS Cup champion, such as added games and the inevitable movement of players more attractive on the world marketplace. And he had this talking point all teed up: “The 58 points we got were the most for any defending champion since 2000.”

Eales: “(Last season) was a great success. We won two competitions, two trophies. We got three trophies in three years as a brand new club, which is pretty incredible starting as a young club and having those trophies already in the cabinet.

“We want to build off that. There is disappointment that we lost the game to Toronto. But that game was why we love the beautiful game of soccer. We play that game 20 times, we probably win it 19. They have to score two really good goals. You have to give them credit, they hung in there, and there were two wonderful goals scored by those players. That’s sometimes what happens in soccer, you can be the best team,  that doesn’t always mean you’re going to win a knock-out game. It wasn’t a case that we didn’t show up or we didn’t perform.

“It has made us hungrier to be more successful this season. I think our fans are hungry. It left them with the sense of excitement for a new season.”