Atlanta United, Gabriel Heinze part ways after 13 MLS games

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Darren Eales comments on the what led to decision to part ways with Gabriel Heinze and finding the next Atlanta United manager.

Atlanta United fired first-year manager Gabriel Heinze on Sunday with the team amid a franchise-worst eight-game winless streak.

Part of the decision may have come down to, a person with knowledge saying that, the Major League Soccer Players Association filed a grievance with the league for multiple infractions related to how Heinze handled the team’s schedule. Atlanta United President Darren Eales directed questions about the grievances to the league and MLPSA. The MLPSA declined to comment.

Under Heinze, the team has been shut out in four of its past five games. Promising to bring attacking, vibrant soccer, Atlanta United has scored 13 goals in 13 games. It will play at Cincinnati on Wednesday and will host Columbus on Saturday. The Five Stripes have won just two games, are in 10th place in the East, four points behind the seventh place team. The top seven teams qualify for the playoffs. There are 21 games remaining in the regular season.

Eales said Heinze was told of the decision after Sunday’s training session and that it didn’t have to do with his mysterious feud with standout striker Josef Martinez, or entirely about the results on the field. In fact, neither Eales nor vice president Carlos Bocanegra provided a single specific reason why Heinze was let go. Instead, Eales referenced that the club has a number of stakeholders, and that they needed to do due diligence. He said there were a few issues off the field that were factors.

“The reality is this happens throughout the world of sports,” Eales said. “Some managers will fit at certain clubs and some won’t fit. You don’t know until they are in the club.”

Eales said the club will look to move quickly to make its next hire because he believes the club has talent and can make the playoffs.

“We have to get the next hire right,” Eales said.

The decision shouldn’t have been surprising because the team last year fired Frank de Boer five league games into the season after the team was shut out in three consecutive games in the MLS tournament. With that decision, the club said that it and de Boer parted ways. Sunday’s decision was described in a statement from the club as “relieved of duties” for a “variety of reasons.”

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Atlanta United head coach Gabriel Heinze (left) confers with striker Josef Martinez (7) during the second half against Chicago Saturday, April 24, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Atlanta United head coach Gabriel Heinze  (left) confers with striker Josef Martinez (7) during the second half against Chicago Saturday, April 24, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Atlanta United head coach Gabriel Heinze (left) confers with striker Josef Martinez (7) during the second half against Chicago Saturday, April 24, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Heinze’s tenure will be known for a mysterious feud with Martinez, an offense that is among the worst in the league, a man-to-man marking scheme that consistently didn’t work, indifference to the club’s and league’s media obligations, and an aloofness toward most everyone at the club who weren’t the players.

Bocanegra and Eales have consistently spoken about the team’s culture and the need for people to respect each other. Asked if that part of the due diligence broke down when considering Heinze, Bocanegra said, “You don’t know anyone until they are actually in the building. Speaking to other players, people in the country, people in the community in Argentina, players loved him, players wanted to play for him.”

Assistant Rob Valentino was named the interim manager. Bocanegra implied that Valentino will not be leading the club for long.

The club waited for months last year to hire Heinze, who said he needed the time to consider the team’s proposal and its project. He was given input into player signings that his predecessor didn’t have.

Instead of a team molded in the image of Marcelo Bielsa, Heinze’s coaching mentor, who is known for high-scoring, fast-paced games, the team looked more and more static on offense and sometimes confused on defense.

Its most recent game, a 1-0 loss to New England on Saturday, is a perfect example of performances this season. The team gave up a goal on a man-marking error in the first half. Instead of actively chasing a result in the second half, the team put just two shots on goal, both from outside the penalty box, in the second half.

Credit: MLS

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Atlanta United was shut out for the fifth time this season in a 1-0 loss to New England at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Credit: MLS

Asked after the game if he was worried about his job security, Heinze said that he felt he had the support of Eales and Bocanegra.

“Look, I don’t need that support,” he said. “Because they see what I do day to day. I worry about my players. I talk to Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra every day. I understand the position that they’re in. But they have always been alongside me. They’ve always seen how we do things. I’m not going to change their minds if something happens. I don’t need support. What I plan to do is to keep working. And they have always been with me, so there’s no problem.”

From the time he was hired, Heinze showed very little use for the media. He was interviewed for the first time after his hiring was announced in December. Curiously, he said he never spoke to Gerardo Martino, Atlanta United’s first manager and a fellow Argentinian, about the position or the peculiarities of MLS. Heinze didn’t speak to journalists again throughout training camp until a few days before the first Champions League game at Alajuelense in mid-February. The league had to intervene to get Heinze to fulfill its contractual media obligations. Eales referenced the media as one of the stakeholders who are important to the club during Sunday’s call.

“When you work at Atlanta United, there are a number of boxes to tick,” Eales said.

Heinze worked the players relentlessly, often doing two-a-day training sessions, while he put in his tactics. The two-a-days stopped for a while until the first international break when he re-started them. Midfielder Emerson Hyndman suffered an ACL injury and was lost for the season during one of the sessions. Numerous other players, including Jurgen Damm, Alan Franco and Matheus Rossetto, sustained injuries during training sessions that resulted in them missing numerous games. Martino also committed at least three violations related to training that were filed by the MLSPA.

The players that Heinze pushed the club to sign, a group that includes midfielder Santiago Sosa and centerback Alan Franco, haven’t performed up to expectations. Sosa started well but has started to have issues defensively. He has yet to register a goal or an assist in a league game this season despite being known as an excellent passer. Franco has played in just five games. Sunday’s may have been his best performance but he was partially responsible for New England’s goal.

And then there was the feud with Martinez, the face of the franchise. Heinze said last Thursday that he was forcing Martinez to train apart from the first team. Heinze wouldn’t say why, saying that it was between him and the player. After Sunday’s tepid loss, Heinze said that Martinez was going to re-join the first team but he didn’t know if he would be available for Wednesday’s game. Again asked why Martinez was forced to train by himself, Heinze said that it was between himself and the player. Two of Martinez’s teammates said they didn’t know what was going on, which seemed an odd way for a coach to make a point.

Eales said that Martinez and Heinze spoke on Sunday and that Martinez participated in the team’s training session. He described the feud as a clash between two big personalities.

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Atlanta United head coach Gabriel Heinze shouts instructions during the second half Saturday, May 29, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The game ended a 2-2 draw. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Atlanta United head coach Gabriel Heinze shouts instructions during the second half Saturday, May 29, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The game ended a 2-2 draw. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Atlanta United head coach Gabriel Heinze shouts instructions during the second half Saturday, May 29, 2021, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The game ended a 2-2 draw. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Heinze’s personnel choices for games could also be mysterious. When Martinez left to join Venezuela for the Copa America, Heinze continued to start Erick Torres, whose scoreless streak has reached 499 minutes. Asked after Sunday’s game why Torres continues to start instead of Homegrown signing Jackson Conway, who has scored a goal this season, Heinze said, “Do you think because a player doesn’t score, we need to sub him? I don’t think this way in football or outside of football. I like to give a lot of confidence. I like to give the player a lot of support. Let me repeat, Cubo Torres is not the bad one here. I’m the bad one here. You can say that the coach is bad, not the player.”

Despite saying that he was going to follow his path and plan, Heinze changed the starting formation at least three times in league games. He started with a 4-3-3, then a 3-5-2 and on Sunday tried a 3-4-3. Nothing consistently worked.

The high point of Atlanta United’s season, its Champions League game against Philadelphia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, resulted in a loss when Heinze was out-coached by the Union’s Jim Curtin. After a vibrant but scoreless effort by Atlanta United in the first half, Philadelphia counter-attacked its way to a 3-0 victory, effectively ending the Five Stripes’ Champions League efforts in the quarterfinals for the second consecutive year.

Heinze shouldn’t be blamed for all of Atlanta United’s issues. For the past three games, the team has played without starting goalkeeper Brad Guzan, centerback Miles Robinson, fullback George Bello and midfielder Ezequiel Barco because of call-ups to their national team. The team earned one point and scored two goals in those games.

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Atlanta United’s 2021 MLS schedule

April 17 Atlanta United 0, Orlando 0

April 24 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 1

May 1 New England 2, Atlanta United 1

May 9 Atlanta United 1, Inter Miami 1,

May 15 Atlanta United 1, Montreal 0

May 23 Atlanta United 1, Seattle 1

May 29 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2

June 20 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 2

June 23 NYCFC 1, Atlanta United 0

June 27 Atlanta United 0, New York Red Bulls 0

July 3 Chicago 3, Atlanta United 0

July 8 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2

July 17 New England 1, Atlanta United 0

July 21 at Cincinnati, 8 p.m., FS1

July 24 vs. Columbus, 3:30 p.m., ABC

July 30 at Orlando, 8 p.m., ESPN

Aug. 4 at Montreal, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Aug. 7 at Columbus, 7:30 p.m. BSSO/BSSE

Aug. 15 vs. LAFC, 4 p.m. ESPN

Aug. 18 vs. Toronto, 7 p.m. BSSO/BSSE

Aug. 21 at D.C. United, 8 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Aug. 28 vs. Nashville, 3:30 p.m., Univision

Sept. 10 vs. Orlando, 7 p.m., FS1

Sept. 15 vs. Cincinnati, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept. 18 vs. D.C. United, 3:30 p.m., Univision

Sept. 25 at Philadelphia,3:30 p.m., Univision

Sept. 29 vs. Inter Miami, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Oct. 2 at Montreal, 7 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Oct. 16 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Oct. 20 vs. NYCFC, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Oct. 27 vs. Inter Miami, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Oct. 30 vs. Toronto, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Nov. 3 at New York Red Bulls, TBD, BSSO/BSSE

Nov. 7 at Cincinnati, 3:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE