The stage was set for the opening ceremony for the Atlanta United soccer team to play the Portland Timbers for the MLS Cup, the championship game of the Major League Soccer League at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Four things to watch in Atlanta United offseason

Six trophies.

Atlanta United, recently crowned the kings of MLS, can compete for as many as six trophies in 2019. They are the CONCACAF Champions League, U.S. Open Cup, Campeones Cup, Supporters’ Shield, MLS Cup and Club World Cup.

The work started when the franchise was founded in April 2014. It will take important steps, arguably its most important, during this offseason.

Here are things to watch until the SuperDraft in Chicago on Jan. 11 and training camp opens three days later:

Q. By when will the next manager be hired?

A. Jan. 14 is the date that team president Darren Eales has consistently said is his deadline to have the team’s second manager in place.

It seems more likely that the team will have  Gerardo Martino’s successor sooner than that because of the six trophies at stake. Plus, the team has known it was going to need a hire since it announced in late October that Martino wasn’t returning.

The CCL season will start in February and the league season will likely start the first weekend in March, so the next manager will have six weeks to get to know the players, communicate his strategy and begin developing the tactics to execute that strategy.

Q. Who will be the next manager?

A. Several names have been tied to the job. Some, such as Guillermo Barros Schelotto, make a lot of sense. Others, such as Alan Pardew, don’t.

Barros Schelotto was most recently the manager of Boca Juniors in his native Argentina. He won two trophies with the club. Similar to Martino, he would bring a name cache to young players in Argentina that have become a mine of talent for Atlanta United with signings such as Hector Villalba, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Franco Escobar, Eric Remedi and Ezequiel Barco. 

Barros Schelotto also brings experience playing in MLS from his years with Columbus.

What he doesn’t bring, or rather has yet to develop, is a lot of experience as a manager. He led Boca Juniors for just two seasons. He led Lanus, Miguel Almiron’s former club, for three years.

His tactics, or lack thereof, have been questioned, particularly in losses to Boca’s rival, River Plate.

Q. Will the team lose any key players?

A. The team last week announced that it had declined contract options on several players, none of whom would be considered key contributors.

It also traded Greg Garza, who has been a key contributor but was deemed surplus to the needs of the team, which has four left backs remaining on its roster.

The biggest name that seems likely to leave is Miguel Almiron, though the team has said that it will only sell him if the offer meets their expectations.

The problem for Atlanta United is it already had his replacement, Pity Martinez, lined up, and because of MLS rules, the team can’t add PIty Marintez without selling or loaning either Almiron, Josef Martinez or Ezequiel Barco. 

So, Eales may not have the desired leverage when it comes to negotiating the sale of Almiron.

Rumors of Josef Martinez have cooled in recent weeks, particularly as he’s said over and over that he loves living in Atlanta and would only want to leave if the club decided it no longer wanted him. At this point, after scoring a league single-season scoring record of 35 goals and winning three MVP awards, he seems closer to getting the statue he desires rather than a pink slip.

On the other hand, buy low, sell high.

It will be intriguing to see how the team may react should it receive offers, or there are reports of offers, for players such as Gonzalez Pirez, one of the league’s best defenders the past two seasons, and Julian Gressel, whose skills allow him to slide into any position in the midfield, as a wingback or fullback.

Teams have until the beginning of March to ensure that their rosters are in compliance with MLS rules.

Q. Will the team add key players in addition to Pity Martinez?

A. Based upon its history, it wouldn’t be surprising if it did.

No one expected the team to complete a trade in Dec. 2017 for Darlington Nagbe. But the deal was done and Nagbe was a key player in the team’s drive in the playoffs.

The team was deep enough to survive numerous injuries last season when it was competing for three trophies: the U.S. Open Cup, Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup.

This year, because it is competing as many as six trophies, it would be unreasonable to expect the typical starters to go every game. 

So, the team needs to add depth and experience at almost every position, but particularly down the middle of the pitch: striker, central midfielder, defensive midfielder and centerback.

Perhaps most importantly, it needs to add someone who has competed in the CONCACAF Champions League because winning that would not only make MLS history, but would put it in the Club World Cup, which would immeasurably strengthen the brands of the team and league.

It could be argued that the players (goalkeeper Brad Guzan, centerback Michael Parkhurst, Nagbe, among others)  who have competed in World Cup qualifying in the region can draw from that when it comes to the Champions League because the environments and travel will be similar.

The team also has players who have competed in the Copa Libertadores, which is similar to the Champions League.

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