What does Atlanta United want in its next manager?

Caption
Since 2016, Atlanta United has had a run of three coaches

And how did the MLS team get here?

Having tried and failed with hiring of Frank de Boer and then of Gabriel Heinze, Atlanta United President Darren Eales said on Sunday that the MLS club must get its next hire right.

Speaking after the club announced that it fired Heinze after just 13 games and a 2-4-7 record, Eales said, “We are focused on quickly finding a leader who is not only committed to a high competitive standard but importantly is also a cultural fit and embodies who we are as a club.”

Eales wants the next hire to be made quickly but not without undue haste. A search firm won’t be used. Instead, the club will use analytics to assist with its search. Eales said the search will be broad.

Eales said when making the next hire, many boxes must be checked. He said the club has multiple stakeholders who are factors in the decision. Those include the players, the supporters, the league, the team’s staff and the media. Heinze was great with the players, but had a reputation as not caring much about the rest.

“Our job for the next hire is to de-risk that process,” Eales said. “Until someone is in the building it’s very hard to know if things are going to fit. That is what we are going to try to do on the next hire, make sure we do our due diligence.”

The bottom line, Eales said, is the team’s performance on the pitch. Once considered the model franchise in MLS, the club has turned into one that missed the playoffs last year and is on track to do so again this season.

“We do feel confident about our squad and players coming back that we can make a push for the end of the season,” club vice president Carlos Bocanegra said.

The playoffs seem a long way off based upon the team’s performances but there are still 21 games remaining and the team trails the seventh and final playoff team by just four points. All this despite being shut out in four of its past five games.

How did Atlanta United get here?

Since hiring the club’s first manager, Gerardo Martino, it has failed to replicate that success.

Martino, who formerly managed Barcelona and Argentina’s men’s national team, led the Five Stripes to the playoffs in 2017 and the MLS Cup in 2018 in just its second season. He resigned in December 2018 and was hired to lead the Mexican’ men’s national team a few weeks later.

The team turned to legendary Dutch player Frank de Boer, who had a less-than-stellar coaching resume with failed stints at Inter Milan in Italy and Crystal Palace in England.

Using many of the players signed under Martino, de Boer led the team to a U.S. Open Cup championship and Campeones Cup title. The team was a missed penalty kick from hosting the MLS championship game for the second consecutive year. But there were cracks. The South American players didn’t seem to get along with de Boer. His tactics were off and on.

Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino celebrates on the field after the victory defeating the Portland Timbers for the MLS Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin/Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino celebrates on the field after the victory defeating the Portland Timbers for the MLS Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin/Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

And then things fell apart. The team made difficult choices with several players, including Hector Villalba, Darlington Nagbe, Julian Gressel and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez ahead of the 2020 season. None returned to the club. With Martino no longer there to give input on signings, the players signed in their place have yet to produce at their predecessor’s levels.

The 2020 season started with an injury to Josef Martinez in the first league game of the 2020 season. The team won its next game. COVID paused everything. The team returned and was shut out in its next three games in the MLS tournament. De Boer and the club parted ways because Eales felt there was a lack of positive momentum.

Stephen Glass was promoted from Atlanta United 2 to take over the first team. It sold Designated Player Pity Martinez, who underperformed, with a few games remaining. He was replaced by Marcelino Moreno. The team failed to make the playoffs for the first time in its short history.

After months of courtship, Heinze was hired with a promise to the club’s supporters that attacking, vibrant soccer would return. Martinez returned from injury. But the roster continued to turn over with several players wanted by Heinze signed. That group included Franco Ibarra, Santiago Sosa and Alan Franco, each of whom have shown potential but are not yet as good as their predecessors.

Speaking on Monday, centerback Anton Walkes said he hopes the hire is someone who knows the game very well, who is open-minded, and great man-manager. Fullback Brooks Lennon said he hopes the next manager is a good man-manager, which he said Heinze was good at, as is interim manager Rob Valentino.

The next manager will be tasked with trying to take these pieces and put them together. Notably, they will become the fifth manager to try to figure out how to get the most out of Ezequiel Barco, a Designated Player who has scored 11 goals with 10 assists in three-plus seasons. Other possible building blocks include centerback Miles Robinson and fullback George Bello, who are with the U.S. men’s national team that is competing in the Gold Cup, Sosa, Ibarra and Erik Lopez, young players from South America, and Homegrown signings Jackson Conway, Machop Chol and Tyler Wolff. Bocanegra said the team is targeting finding a starter during this open transfer window.

Eales and Bocanegra said they are accountable for the hires they have made and will be accountable for the pending hire. Eales said it is incumbent upon them to show the supporters’ trust in them is well placed.

“We are about trophies,” Eales said. “It’s also about accessibility with to the fans, with the media, with our staff, it’s about carrying yourself the right way. There are so many factors that go into it. I’m here because I’m more disappointed than anyone. This has ended a lot shortage than anyone envisaged. We have to get the next hire right.”

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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