Atlanta United pledges it will experience success in 2021

October 24, 2020 Atlanta - D.C. United's forward Gelmin Rivas (20) can't make a shot as Atlanta United's goalkeeper Brad Guzan (1) tries to block 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) can't make a shot as Atlanta United's goalkeeper Brad Guzan (1) tries to block 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

Paraphrasing the city of Atlanta’s motto of rising again, Atlanta United President Darren Eales said he expects work done by the club in this surprisingly early offseason will set up the club to experience the same success next season that it experienced in its first three seasons.

When next season is done, 2020 will be just a fever dream.

With Sunday’s 2-1 loss at Columbus, Atlanta United failed to qualify for the MLS postseason for the first time. It was a fate the seemed foregone in the wake of an injury to Josef Martinez, its standout striker, in the first game, on top of the stops and starts related to COVID-19, the decision to part ways with manager Frank de Boer in July and then selling Pity Martinez, arguably the team’s best player, in early September.

“We aren’t naïve,” Eales said. “We aren’t stupid. We have to learn from this. We’ve had it good. We’ve had adversity this year and it’s important that we learn from this. Sometimes in down times you learn more. We’ve got to make sure we are better.”

Eales said there are few factors that will work in the team’s favor as it looks to try to add a fourth trophy to its cabinet to go along with the 2018 MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup won in 2019:

  • Hiring a new manager by the end of the year who has shown a demonstrated ability to play aggressive, positive soccer;
  • Getting Martinez, the 2018 MLS MVP, back;
  • Mechanisms within the Collective Bargaining Agreement that will allow the team to improve talent;
  • Some salary cap flexibility that it didn’t have this year;
  • The development of players like George Bello and Jon Gallagher, paired with bright spots such as mid-season acquisitions Jurgen Damm and Marcelino Moreno.

“We want this to be quickly forgotten and start as we meant to go on in 2021,” Eales said.

The club isn’t going to make any wholesale changes to its structure or the roles within the front office. Eales said Vice President Carlos Bocanegra will continue to be responsible for talent acquisition.

It could be argued that this year’s team was the least talented of the four from the inaugural 2017 season. Atlanta United scored just 23 goals, second-fewest in the league, and allowed 30, which was 13th. Losing Martinez, who averaged almost 26 goals per season from 2017-19, was a big reason. Among the other reasons were the lack of consistency from Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco, who Eales implied has yet to find his form. Barco scored just two goals with three assists in 15 appearances this season.

Bocanegra said the roster turnover and building toward 2021 will happen soon. He said decisions on contract options will be made within the next 7-10 days. The team has until the end of the month to make those decisions.

“I do want to say I’m proud pf the players for what they sacrificed,” Bocanegra said. “Very strange year for them. They had to sacrifice a lot.”

Some of the players on the team from South America haven’t been able to see their families in months because of travel restrictions related to COVID-19 and the compression of the schedule. Interim manager Stephen Glass said earlier this week that it at times was understandably difficult to keep the players focused on training.

But there was blame to go around that doesn’t explain why the team seemed to be affected more than others by the different stops and starts to the season, which Bocanegra acknowledged. The team won back-to-back games just once. It twice had winless streaks of six games. It was able to start the same 11 in consecutive games just once.

“I think that was from top to bottom,” Bocanegra said. “We have to address these areas. Why were some of the other teams more successful? Why were some of the other teams more consistent? In the end, it wasn’t good enough.”

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