August 27, 2019 Atlanta: Atlanta United players Ezequiel Barco (left) and Pity Martinez celebrate beating Minnesota United 2-1 to win the U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday, August 27, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Atlanta United wants to build on 2019

Atlanta United Vice President Carlos Bocanegra said Thursday that not defending the MLS Cup was disappointing, but he still considered the team’s season a success because it won two trophies and qualified for the Champions League.

On the day it announced several roster decisions, Bocanegra and manager Frank de Boer said in a conference call that they are looking to add depth and strength at every position ahead of the 2020 season. Bocanegra declined to say if any positions were of higher priority to fill.

The ongoing CBA negotiations are affecting what the front office can do as it refreshes the roster because Bocanegra said, “We just aren’t sure what the world is going to look like. We don’t want to handcuff ourselves with a situation we can’t get out of or is not the right way to go. It’s a very strange situation right now and something I hope we don’t have to go through again.”

Bocanegra said there is no “Go” plan in place to sign players in case the CBA is finalized early and the salary parameters increased. Nor are there are any gentlemen’s agreements in place with players to join if teams have more money to spend than in previous seasons. The current CBA expires Jan. 31, 2020.

Bocanegra said he anticipates two of Atlanta United’s Designated Players, Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco, returning along with Hector Villalba. Pity Martinez had a rough beginning to 2019, but de Boer said he played well at the end of the season. Martinez had five goals and nine assists in 32 appearances.

“I think if he continues how he plays the last two games ... that’s the Pity I want to see,” he said. “He’s involved in defending and attacking. If he shows that there’s no doubt he will have a major impact in MLS and for us.”

Villalba’s and Barco’s seasons were negatively affected by injuries. Bocanegra called Villalba a top player who should be able to compete for a starting position no matter which formation de Boer selects. Villalba doesn’t have a natural position in a 3-4-2-1 formation, which is what the team played frequently the second half of the season. Villalba had one goal and four assists in 20 appearances. Each were his lowest in three seasons with the club. Barco had four goals and three assists in 15 appearances. He scored no goals after May 5 and had two assists in that same span. Bocanegra said Barco is one of several players on the team that other teams have scouted.

It seems likely that Atlanta United will purchase midfielder Emerson Hyndman from Bournemouth. Bocanegra said the club hopes to have good news soon.

But de Boer said it’s impossible to replace midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who recently was sold to Columbus. 

“Other players will have to step up and use their weapons,” de Boer said.

The roster construction is of vital importance because, for the second consecutive season, Atlanta United will compete in the Champions League. Unlike last season, when Pity Martinez was a late arrival after joining from River Plate, Nagbe was working on his fitness, and Hyndman and Justin Meram had yet to arrive, de Boer said he hopes the team is mostly constructed with time to work together before the first game. The tournament draw will be Dec. 9. The first games are Feb. 18-20.

The team will take a preseason trip to Guadalajara, Mexico to better acclimate to the travel that comes with the Champions League. Last season, the team played against Herediano in Costa Rica and Monterrey in Mexico.

“It’s important that we have the roster clear with these important games,” de Boer said.

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