Coming to grips with reality that Atlanta United can err, too

As Jeff Larentowicz did in the MLS is Back tournament, it's up to Atlanta United to pick itself up and move on.
As Jeff Larentowicz did in the MLS is Back tournament, it's up to Atlanta United to pick itself up and move on.

In the pantheon of bad professional coaching hires in Atlanta, the soccer team’s picking Frank de Boer to replace a charismatic, championship-made man like Tata Martino is at best a dishonorable mention. There have been worse moves hereabouts, honestly.

Bobby Petrino, the Falcons deserter, springs to mind. For sheer contemptibility, he is unmatched.

Lon Kruger, a fairly fabulous college coach was about as ill-suited to the NBA as a twin bed. He killed some time with the Hawks (going 69-122 between 2000-03) before returning to where he belonged and one day becoming Trae Young’s gateway coach to Atlanta.

Call de Boer the Eddie Haas of Atlanta United. Haas, a bedrock baseball guy the same way de Boer was in his game, followed Joe Torre to manage the 1985 Braves and never really connected with his new job or his team. When Haas was replaced after a mere 121 games (he was 50-71), the Braves celebrated by winning the next five for interim Bobby Wine, who came in promising a more aggressive style of ball. Atlanta United can only hope for such a burst of grateful winning for its interim guy, Stephen Glass. At best, Glass can be the blast of fresh air and renewed optimism you experience when first ripping off the mask in the grocery store parking lot.

No one is fired any more, they reach a mutual agreement with management to leave. Whatever. When de Boer was mutually agreed out of town, his failure was a shared one.

Someone had to hire him in the first place following tragically brief postings at Inter Milan (85 days in 2016) and Crystal Palace (10 weeks a year later). His resume had really begun taking on water after a successful five years leading his old club in the Netherlands, Ajax. There were clear concerns coming in about how his personality and playing philosophies would mesh with the style that Martino had so effectively crafted.

After a first year that ultimately produced a couple of trophies in some side-venture tournaments and a truly ghastly second season shaped by the coronavirus, the concerns proved well-founded.

And someone had to oversee what has been a marked talent drain since the championship season of 2018. The turnover, through the various machinations of soccer, has cost this team players of great import and popularity such as Miquel Almiron, Julian Gressel, Darlington Nagbe, Tito Villalba and Leandro González Pírez. No one has come along yet to replace them in the hearts of Atlanta United supporters, not even high-profile signings such as Pity Martinez or Ezequiel Barco.

Darren Eales gave us permission to save some blame for himself and technical director Carlos Bocanegra when he told the AJC’s Doug Roberson on Monday: “This is everyone’s responsibility. Everyone is culpable to some degree. ... You’ll never get everything right. Falls on all of us to step it up. It’s certainly not one person’s fault.”

It has been little but rose petals and hosannas for Atlanta United since its first game in 2017 at Bobby Dodd Stadium. You knew that couldn’t last. There would have to be some kind of cosmic realignment. We just couldn’t know it would be this sudden and this striking, not even after the devastating knee injury to Josef Martinez.

Now is time to view Atlanta United in a whole new light, as its management reacts to the first real trial in its brief history. This is when the character of a franchise will reveal itself.

Coming off a series of performances that were as do-nothing as a beach vacation, Atlanta United is at the kind of low point that it has only heard about second-hand from other teams in this town.

There is little tangible evidence that it ever took part in the MLS is Back Tournament, having scored in three games exactly as many goals as FC Dallas and Nashville SC. And they weren’t there because of virus outbreaks.

Losing, you could accept, maybe. But losing so fecklessly – with such a lack of energy, creativity and even meaningful shots on goal – was the antithesis of everything about the Atlanta United “brand.”

How the MLS season proceeds from here is up for grabs, as is pretty much everything else. There is talk of resuming a shortened season in late August, but write that in pencil.

The only blessing for Atlanta United lately is that it has played without fans. That same corps that was so loudly exultant since the beginning would be so loudly indignant now that it has seen the team without its makeup on.

This being critical of the local soccer team is a strange new phenomenon. But Atlanta fans have some general grasp on how to do it given their experience with other franchises, so Atlanta United probably shouldn’t waste too much time before changing the mood.

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