With new manager and new faces, Atlanta United hopes to bounce back

KPIs.

Key Performance Indicators.

If Atlanta United bounces back from the disaster that was its 2020 season -- no playoffs, few goals, no buzz -- the franchise and its frantic fan base may owe a golden debt to these letters: KPIs.

When the team decided to move on from manager Frank de Boer last season, a decision that opened the door to eventually hire Gabriel Heinze, it dove deep into the numbers to make sure that Heinze could deliver what club President Darren Eales, Vice President Carlos Bocanegra, the players and the 70,000 supporters that show up to game want: attacking, beautiful soccer.

“We will never have like-for-like in terms of players, but in certain key KPIs we want a demonstrated way of playing,” Eales said. “That was non-negotiable.”

But how do you know? In his first press conference, de Boer talked about continuing the work done by Gerardo Martino.

It obviously didn’t happen.

The KPIs showed that Heinze’s work with Godoy Cruz, Argentinos Juniors and Velez Sarsfield was repeatable.

“I’ll stress this: Every coach and manager has different strengths and weaknesses,” Eales said. “With all things considered, Gabby was the best hire for us.”

Working with Heinze, Bocanegra and the scouting department began to rebuild a team that has more potential to do what is wanted and expected.

In came Santiago Sosa, the closest thing the team has had to Darlington Nagbe, and Franco Ibarra to strengthen the center of the midfield. In came Lisandro Lopez, a veteran player with a tremendous pedigree, to add leadership and depth at striker. In came centerback Alan Franco, a ball-playing defender to pair with Miles Robinson in what may be the best defensive duo in MLS.

Perhaps of most importance, striker Josef Martinez returned from the knee surgery that sidelined him for all but one half of last year’s MLS season. Before his injury, he arguably was the best striker in league history. His presence and drive are the gas in the team’s emotional engine.

Heinze inherited other players that are more than capable of getting up and down the field, controlling the pace of the game and putting opponents under pressure. Fullbacks George Bello and Brooks Lennon have non-stop engines on the wings. Marcelino Moreno and Ezequiel Barco are technical, quick and have the talent to single-handedly unlock defenses. Jurgen Damm is one of the league’s fastest players. Emerson Hyndman can be the wild card in the middle, a player who often pops up in dangerous spots.

“We have the pieces in place to be competitive,” Eales said. “This is going to be an exciting year to watch the team.”

Heinze worked the team during the six weeks of the preseason. Two-a-days were common. Everything was broken down to the finest details, with Heinze helping the players understand exactly what he wants in every situation. The players praised his ability to communicate and explain.

“We’ve had a long preseason to focus on what we want to do this year,” Hyndman said. “I think everyone is just excited to go into this year with everything being fresh.”

The team has gotten off to a good start with 1-0 wins in its first two Champions League games. Though the style of play likely didn’t satisfy the KPIs, the team did show flashes of its potential.

“We are trying to implement everything we learned in preseason from Gabriel, and hopefully we can transition that to the MLS season,” Lennon said. “We are just going day-by-day and picking up everything we can. The most important part is being together as a team, and we are starting to gel, so that’s looking good.”

There is one more difference between this year and last year that could positively affect Atlanta United’s chances of once again becoming one of the more exciting teams in MLS. This difference can be more important than KPIs: people in the stands.

COVID-19 protocols prevented the team from playing in front of the “17s” for most of its games.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium will open to 50 percent capacity for its home opener against Chicago on April 24. If allowed, the team plans to open the stadium to full capacity for games July 24 against Columbus and Aug. 15 against LAFC.

“It was brought home to me, speaking to colleagues without supporters there, it’s a different sport altogether,” Eales said. “Everybody is missing that power, both from the home and away supporters when you get the boos. It’s part of the fun of the game.”

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