Atlanta United believes its roster is better than its results

October 24, 2020 Atlanta - D.C. United's forward Gelmin Rivas (20) heads the ball during the second half in a MLS soccer match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, October 24, 2020. D.C. United won 2-1 over the Atlanta United. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
October 24, 2020 Atlanta - D.C. United's forward Gelmin Rivas (20) heads the ball during the second half in a MLS soccer match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, October 24, 2020. D.C. United won 2-1 over the Atlanta United. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Though the team they put together missed the playoffs for the first time and had one of the league’s worst offenses, Atlanta United President Darren Eales and Vice President Carlos Bocanegra expressed optimism Monday that only a few positions need strengthening for the 2021 MLS season in the club’s efforts to once again become among the best in the league.

“We feel like we have a good base to build off,” Bocanegra said.

The players underperformed this season for several reasons, according to the duo. The stop and starts of the season didn’t help. Neither did a coaching change mid-season. Neither did injuries to key players, including Josef Martinez, who was lost for the season in the first league game, and Ezequiel Barco, who missed a stretch of seven consecutive games, or the sale of Pity Martinez to a club in Saudi Arabia in September.

There was an obvious lack of chemistry, which led to an obvious lack of consistency, with two separate winless streaks of six games and just one winning streak of a modest two games.

“Interesting year for us to assess players on the field;” Bocanegra said. “We were only able to put out same starting 11 back to back once. We got to see players in a lot of different scenarios. That has helped us identify some of our weaknesses, some better partnerships that we maybe didn’t expect.”

It’s easier to highlight those who played consistently well than didn’t: Brooks Lennon, two goals and three assists; George Bello, who led the team’s field players in minutes (1,648); and Jon Gallagher, who led the team with four goals. Plus, several Homegrown players made their debuts, including George Campbell and Tyler Wolff.

Marcelino Moreno, who signed after Pity Martinez was sold, performed well in his six appearances with two goals and one assist.

Neither Eales nor Bocanegra identified the positions that need strengthening, but they were fairly clear. The team needs help at defensive midfielder. Jeff Larentowicz may retire. Eric Remedi fell out of favor and it’s thought his contract is entering its option year.

It could be argued that the centerbacks rarely showed consistency. There was no consistent healthy backup for Bello. The team got caught with no suitable replacement when Josef Martinez suffered his knee injury against Nashville. To be fair, that’s a tougher find because few strikers will want to come to back up Martinez, who rarely leaves the field when he plays.

Lastly, and arguably most important, is the conundrum that is Barco, one of the team’s three Designated Players. For the third consecutive season he failed to impress with just two goals and three assists in 15 appearances. Eales said the plan is for Barco to be back with the team next season. But a sale wouldn’t be surprising.

Combined, the team earned only 22 points from 23 games and scored only 23 goals, second-fewest in the league.

“Players did their best to go out and perform,” Bocanegra said. “We were inconsistent. You saw that with the results.”

The team has several ways that it can strengthen the roster next season, and Eales said they would take advantage of every mechanism.

In the new collective bargaining agreement, there is a clause that teams can sign new, young players similar to Designated Players. The details of the clause are being worked out.

The team could sell Barco, take the revenues and apply them toward signing another DP to strengthen the left wing.

In its history, the team has consistently shed larger contracts, such as those of Greg Garza, Chris McCann and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, among others sold or traded the previous three years. Doing so again would possibly generate more revenue that the team could use for signings. Among those on the roster who are believed to have larger salaries are Emerson Hyndman and Fernando Meza. The Major League Soccer Players Association has to release its salary database that details each player’s salary.

Bocanegra and Eales hinted that the team already has created some salary cap space for future season and that there are other things it plans to do.

“Do we feel good, yeah?” Bocanegra said. “We have to make some moves to get there.”

The team also is working on plans to help its current players, first by hiring a manager, and second by setting up more support to improve social lives and family support should the COVID-19 pandemic affect next season similarly to this season. Bocanegra said helping the players find a level of comfort and focus off the field will help them on the field.

“I’m fully confident in the club we have, with structure and with team and with our amazing fans we are in a position to look ahead to 2021,” Eales said.

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