Some of the points are obvious, such as a rash of injuries. Some are debatable, such as tactics and personnel. Some we may never know the answers to, such as manager Gonzalo Pineda’s relationships with Josef Martinez and Marcelino Moreno, two once-key players who have seem to fallen out of favor. All the points likely will be scrutinized by whomever is hired to be the next club president, a job that’s been open since Darren Eales departed in mid-August to become CEO of Newcastle in England’s Premier League.
Midfielder Amar Sejdic said it’s tough to pick only one reason.
“I don’t think you can really narrow it down to one thing,” he said. “That’s way too complex to really break down. It’s a game. It’s a long season, and a multitude of factors come in.”
Here are a few talking points about why this season is ending far sooner than many predicted when it kicked off 33 games ago with a 3-1 win against Sporting KC on Feb. 27:
Injuries. There is no getting around this. There were at least 20 injuries that resulted in players missing at least two consecutive games. Of them, many consecutive were missed. The veteran spine of the team, goalkeeper Brad Guzan and centerback Miles Robinson each suffered Achilles’ tendon ruptures in April and May that resulted them missing most of the games, defensive midfielder Ozzie Alonso suffered a torn ACL that ended his season in April and midfielder Emerson Hyndman’s recovery from last season’s torn ACL meant he was brought back slowly, only for him to suffer a quad injury. Added together, this quartet played in 29 of a possible 136 games. Their experience and skill were missed.
And it kept going. Brooks Lennon, Andrew Gutman, Martinez, Machop Chol, Matheus Rossetto, Ronald Hernandez, George Campbell, Franco Ibarra, Dylan Castanheira, Caleb Wiley, Luiz Araujo, Jake Mulraney, to name a few, all sustained injuries that resulted them missing games.
For several games midseason, Pineda was forced to roll out lineups in which six of the back seven in the formation weren’t considered starters before the season, and three weren’t even on the roster when the first game was played.
“I hate to use excuses for anything,” said Lennon, who sustained a knee injury during pregame warmups at Toronto on June 25 that forced him to miss nine games. “We have players on the field every single week that should be getting results, no matter what. But yes, we did have some incredibly unique injuries this season with … guys that are in crucial positions for our club.”
Personnel and tactics. Because of the myriad injuries, it was very difficult for Pineda to consistently select a lineup because he had so few healthy players available. He rolled out the same lineup for three consecutive games only once this season. The team took seven points from those games.
Because Pineda consistently was forced to mix-and-match, it was difficult for those on the filed to develop chemistry. Without chemistry, it’s hard to develop confidence. Without confidence, it’s difficult to play fast. Without being able to play fast, it’s difficult to get results.
“I think the biggest one for us is just the lack of cohesiveness within the lineup,” Gutman said after last week’s loss to New England. “There’s a lot of injuries, there’s a lot of players in and out of the lineup. And you saw these last few games, especially when the lineup kind of stayed consistent, how we’re able to gel and connect better and for me, that’s the biggest thing, we weren’t able to get a starting 11.”
Pineda alternated between a 4-2-3-1 to a 5-2-2-1 to 4-1-4-1 at times in an attempt to find what could work with who he had available. With so many players rotating in and out, it was challenging for those selected to execute Pineda’s preferred possession style of soccer. Heading into Sunday, the team leads the league in shots and shots on goal, which is a compliment to the players and system, but it ranks 13th in goals scored, which is sign that the shots weren’t always quality.
Pineda said Thursday that he was proud that the players were able to execute.
Behind closed doors. There were two pivotal moments that happened off the pitch. The first was the team meeting that happened after the 3-0 loss to Austin on July 9 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The team came into the game playing arguably its best soccer. It was played off the pitch by the visitors from Texas. A 70-minute team meeting followed. In an interview after the meeting, Pineda said a lot of things were aired that had been building. Martinez said that some people didn’t respect the franchise and that decisions needed to be made that were more about winning games. Martinez was used a sub in the next three games in which the team took four points after starting four of the previous five. Pineda said Martinez wasn’t starting because he preferred the playing style of Ronaldo Cisneros.
The next impactful event happened after a 2-1 loss at Portland on Sept. 4. Martinez was used as a sub for the fourth consecutive game. After the loss, Martinez allegedly kicked over a table, and he and Pineda began to argue. Martinez subsequently was suspended for a week for “conduct detrimental to the team.” Martinez returned following that game, a 4-2 win against Toronto, and again was used as a sub in the next three games. Martinez leads the team with nine goals. He has one year remaining on his contract. The team has an option on the contract for the 2024 season. Martinez, who has a guaranteed salary of $4.14 million, according the MLSPA, has said he doesn’t know if this will be his last season with the team. Sunday may be his last game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium wearing the team’s crest.
“We coaches we live and die by our decisions,” Pineda said after the New England game, one that Martinez didn’t start but in which he did score. “We have, as you can imagine, way more information throughout the week, the season, on players, and we make decisions based on what we see day by day in training sessions. At times, I can make great decisions. At times, I cannot. So we were talking about how good performances we have had in the last three games, and no one asked those questions. But today we lose and I can imagine people are going to ask those questions.”
Martinez wasn’t the only player who went from locked-in starter to the bench. Moreno, once a Designated Player, also fell into that pit. After suffering a preseason foot injury, Moreno was used as a sub in the first three games. He then started 16 of the next 18 games. He started just two of the next 12 and didn’t play in four. Part of the reason could be that Moreno is more of an attacking midfielder than winger, and it became clear that Thiago Almada was a much better option trying to create in the center of the pitch. Moreno, who has a guaranteed salary of $460,000 this season, according to the MLSPA, has two goals and seven assists this season and 13 goals and 14 assists in 67 appearances with the club.
The positives. There were a few bright spots. Almada, with six goals and 11 assists, proved worthy of the reported $16 million transfer fee. Lennon, with seven assists and 62 chances created, Gutman, with three goals and two assists, and centerback JuanJo Purata, with six goals, were positives for the club. Aiden McFadden, stepped in when Lennon and Hernandez were injured, showed potential. Centerback Alan Franco, after a rough start to the season, formed a good partnership with Purata. Sosa, once he became healthy, showed potential in his 21 appearances, as did Edwin Mosquera.
What’s next? The MLS calendar is full of dates in November in which Vice President Carlos Bocanegra, in consultation with interim President Steve Cannon, must make decisions about contracts. The status of a few players are known. Martinez, Araujo, Almada, Guzan and Robinson are under contract. There is an option on Lennon’s contract. Sejdic and Ambrose are out of contract.
The roster is full of players who have large guaranteed salaries, such as Rossetto, Ibarra and Hyndman, but who didn’t produce commensurate with their pay. The biggest example may be Araujo, who has a guaranteed contract of $3.9 million, but scored only four goals with five assists. It can be challenging to consistently win in a salary-capped league like MLS when the DPs aren’t producing.
The two most important questions are will the club sell Almada if it gets a good offer, and will it trade or transfer Martinez if he wants to leave. The former league MVP, based upon his social-media posts, still seems enamored with the team’s supporters but perhaps not with the franchise.
Pineda said Thursday he hasn’t yet begun thinking about shaping next season’s roster. He said that will begin after Sunday’s match.
The other most important decision facing the team is who will be the next president. Cannon said he hopes to make that hire by the end of the calendar year.
Still, it may be a compliment that the team, six years in, is finally facing a game of insignificance.
“I mean, I think you can look at many clubs on this league, and it’s a consistent thing,” Sejdic said. “So for Atlanta to kind of be struggling, I guess, in quotations at this point right now, I mean, we do have an MLS Cup, which many other clubs don’t. So I think there’s a lot of a lot of things that this club needs to be happy about. Of course, this isn’t one of them, not being in playoffs. But it’s just a little step back, and then everyone reevaluates themselves and their season. All the players need to do the same. And then yeah, we kind of jump back at it next year.”
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Atlanta United’s 2022 MLS schedule
Feb. 27 Atlanta United 3, Sporting KC 1
March 5 Colorado 3, Atlanta United 0
March 13 Atlanta United 2, Charlotte 1
March 19 Atlanta United 3, Montreal 3
April 2 Atlanta United 1, D.C. United 0
April 10 Charlotte 1, Atlanta United 0
April 16 Atlanta United 0, Cincinnati 0
April 24 Miami 2, Atlanta United 1
April 30 Montreal 2, Atlanta United 1
May 7 Atlanta United 4, Chicago 1
May 15 Atlanta United 2, New England 2
May 21 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2
May 28 Columbus 2, Atlanta United 1
June 19 Atlanta United 2, Miami 0
June 25 Toronto 2, Atlanta United 1
June 30 New York Red Bulls 2, Atlanta United 1
July 3 Atlanta United 2, NYCFC 2
July 9 Austin 3, Atlanta United 0
July 13 Atlanta United 2, Real Salt Lake 1
July 17 Atlanta United 1, Orlando 1
July 24 L.A. Galaxy 2, Atlanta United 0
July 30 Atlanta United 0, Chicago 0
August 6 Atlanta United 2, Seattle 1
August 13 Atlanta United 2, Cincinnati 2
August 17 New York Red Bulls 2, Atlanta United 1
August 21 Atlanta United 2, Columbus 2
August 28 Atlanta United 3, D.C. United 2
August 31 Philadelphia 4, Atlanta United 1
Sept. 4 Portland 2, Atlanta United 1
Sept. 10 Atlanta United 4, Toronto 2
Sept. 14 Atlanta United 1, Orlando 0
Sept 17 Atlanta United 0 Philadelphia 0
Oct. 1 New England 2, Atlanta United 1
Oct. 9 vs. NYCFC, TBD, BSSO/BSSE