Atlanta United a model franchise, deconstructed

Credit: MLS

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Columbus scored a 1-0 win over Atlanta United with a set-piece foal in the 64th minute on a headed goal by centerback Jonathan Mensah.

Credit: MLS

Saturday afternoon promised a huge soccer match. The kind of match once assumed to be part of Atlanta United’s DNA. Nationally televised no less, pitting the Five Stripes against defending MLS champ Columbus.

ExploreAtlanta United’s offense remains under repair

The kind meant to channel all the young and goofy energy released when Atlanta’s soccer team was hatched in 2017. And to some extent that energy still pulsed, before an announced home attendance of more than 67,000, although the actual eyeball attendance was considerably less. The end zone fanatics were still out in force, waving their oddly giant flags and singing their chants that filled the unavoidable dead air of soccer.

But those who can read a set of standings or have followed the dysfunction at the top know how the once model MLS franchise has found itself in a ditch, awaiting rescue.

There was none to be had Saturday. The franchise record winless streak hit 10 games, Atlanta United falling 1-0 to the Crew. They’d point afterward to multiple chances to score — none better than Jake Mulraney’s look just two minutes in, all alone, ball practically on a tee, fired wide with the left foot. Close never has counted and never will. Get back to us when something actually goes into the net.

Waste no sympathy for the franchise, now with a record of two wins, five losses and eight ties. For this is what happens when you compound an unfortunate coaching hire with a disastrous one. And when you get it wrong too often signing new players — especially in a sport where the rosters are so volatile they may as well be written on oily rags.

Do feel a little compassion for those supporters, though, who now must supply all their own fuel while watching a team that can’t score — Atlanta United has a meager 14 goals in 15 games. They are watching paint now that never dries. And these people are used to so much more, like the 70-goal championship season of 2018. That year Josef Martinez scored 31 himself over the 34-game season, a total the team will be fortunate to match at this pace.

Interim coach Rob Valentino shared the fans’ pain.

“I feel bad for them,” he said afterward. “We talked a lot about (the fans) before the game, putting on a performance that would make them proud. Talking about seeing them happy. The crowd drives us and drives the players. They are the lifeblood of the club, the heartbeat of what we want to do. I’m disappointed for them.”

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Atlanta United interim coach Rob Valentino consoles midfielder Marcelino Moreno (10) after their 1-0 loss to the Columbus Crew Saturday, July 24, 2021, at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/For the AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz

Atlanta United interim coach Rob Valentino consoles midfielder Marcelino Moreno (10) after their 1-0 loss to the Columbus Crew Saturday, July 24, 2021, at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/For the AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz

Combined ShapeCaption
Atlanta United interim coach Rob Valentino consoles midfielder Marcelino Moreno (10) after their 1-0 loss to the Columbus Crew Saturday, July 24, 2021, at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/For the AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Valentino, now 0-1-1 since taking over for Gabriel Heinze, would seem to be an immediate improvement over the man he replaced in that it is far more obvious he owns a soul.

Heinze, graduate of the Captain Bligh School of Management, lasted only 13 MLS games, 17 overall, before being sacked. Beyond the fact that he reportedly drove his players relentlessly and ridiculously, there was the nonsense move of temporarily banishing United’s most popular and best offensive player, Martinez, to a separate training site. That was a conflict Heinze had no chance of winning, because in a war of personalities, he was unarmed.

There’s a new head man at the Falcons, too, but we can be fairly certain that Arthur Smith will not have Matt Ryan throwing on his own at Marist while training camp cranks up at Flowery Branch.

What a monumental misstep Heinze was. Replacing Tata Martino, the engaging coach who had all the answers for Atlanta United’s first three seasons, was never going to be easy. But it needn’t have been this ugly.

In just the past year, Arthur Blank’s two local franchises have employed three interim coaches — two for the soccer subsidiary, one for the football. Yeah, tough year. And in retrospect for Atlanta United, the first man who was replaced in mid-season, Frank de Boer, now looks like a soccer Saban compared to the last one.

You have to wonder did team president Darren Eales and technical director Carlos Bocanegra ever meet Heinze before they hired him? You’d think that somewhere in an even superficial vetting process they would have stumbled upon the fact that the guy was going to be harder to work with than an in-law.

What was done right in setting up Atlanta United at the beginning has been undone quicker than anyone could have believed possible.

For now, the team looks to an interim who at least has been around since 2018 and is mindful of the fact that scoring goals is something of a tradition here. Valentino has reestablished a bit of trust with the players. “Guys have a smile on their face every day now, everyone is re-energized now because of Rob,” said defender Anton Walkes.

The team will soon get back a handful of front-line players now on international assignment. In 10th place, three spots out of a playoff position, Atlanta United has more than half a season to make some kind of climb.

Hopefully, Walkes said, “I know what we are capable of. I believe all it will take is one or two wins and momentum will change very quickly.”

But it will be scientifically impossible to win if Atlanta United can’t score. So far, it has made that requirement look harder than calculus.

Just a couple years ago we were talking about an instant dynasty in the making. What hubris. The aim is so much more modest today: Just win a game.