Let’s call Atlanta United what it is: an average MLS team

Atlanta United Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra presents an Atlanta United jersey to defender Stian Gregersen at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Tuesday, January 16, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Atlanta United Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra presents an Atlanta United jersey to defender Stian Gregersen at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Tuesday, January 16, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

The attacking style is the same. The loyal fan base is the same (if increasingly restless). The recent results, though, clearly are not.

Atlanta United begins its eighth season Saturday, pushing the team one year further from past glories when it sat atop MLS and was the league’s marquee club.

And, as such, it’s well past time to stop thinking about the club in that way. Its aspirations and intent remain high — owner Arthur Blank’s team has been in the top five in total salary for the past four years — but the performance on the field has not matched the investment from ownership or the team’s devoted supporters.

In 2019, Atlanta United followed the MLS Cup by winning the U.S. Open Cup (a national tournament that includes about 100 amateur and professional clubs) and Campeones Cup (a matchup of the defending MLS and Mexican league champions). Since then, Atlanta United has been fairly average, finishing 12th, fifth, 11th and sixth in the Eastern Conference. There are myriad reasons to explain the drop-off — the departure of coach Tata Martino, president Darren Eales and star players such as Josef Martinez; injuries; mistakes on managers and high-price player acquisitions; and the change in philosophy brought by new president Garth Lagerwey. But four seasons is a long time not to show much of anything.

The team has not won an MLS playoff round or defeated an MLS team in the U.S. Open Cup in the past four seasons. Its most significant win probably was a home win over Columbus in a best-of-three series last year in the first round of the MLS playoffs. The Five Stripes followed that win by getting eliminated in the decisive third game by the eventual MLS Cup champions.

In January, technical director Carlos Bocanegra pointed to a top-four finish in the Eastern Conference as an objective. That’s a worthy goal — it ensures home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs — but it’s not like we’re talking about splitting the atom, figuratively speaking. (For that matter, literally speaking, either.)

Of the 25 MLS teams besides Atlanta United that existed in 2020, 22 have finished in the top four of their conference at least once in the past four seasons. Archrival Orlando City accomplished it last year with a payroll that was a little more than half of Atlanta United’s, according to Spotrac.

That Atlanta United fielded a dominant team in its first three years isn’t really relevant anymore as a measure of what it can achieve as currently constructed. Of club executives (aside from Blank), decision-makers, coaches and scouts with a hand on the on-field product, there’s only one person still remaining who contributed to any of the first three seasons, Bocanegra. (There’s also only one remaining player, goalkeeper Brad Guzan.) It’s virtually an entirely new organization.

When Bocanegra pointed to a top-four finish as a goal, it was part of an answer to a question about what supporters’ expectations should be.

He began by saying “High, as usual” and revealing the team’s ambition to win a title. Kudos to Bocanegra for not shying away from stating tangible goals, unlike some other teams we could name. (Cough, cough, Hawks).

But, honestly, what has the club done since 2019 (aside from spending a lot of money) for anyone to have high expectations “as usual,” given that the last time they were met was before the pandemic?

Yes, Atlanta United has continued to make the playoffs — the Five Stripes have missed them only twice in seven seasons. However, a) the club has a higher payroll than most of the league; b) more than half the teams in the league qualify for the postseason; c) it enjoys arguably the strongest home-field advantage in the league. Making the playoffs really ought to be a starting point.

All that said, there is reason to believe in what manager Gonzalo Pineda can do with a bolstered lineup this year. Wondrous midfielder Thiago Almada has returned for a third season after widespread speculation that he would be sold to a club in a league where he could make more money and enjoy a bigger stage.

The Five Stripes continue to score goals by the bushelful. Their 66 goals last season ranked second-most in the league. And they’ve spent aggressively to repair their leaky defense. A year ago, Atlanta United allowed 126 shots on target, tied for fifth-fewest in the league. But the save percentage was 60.3%, ranked last in MLS, a reflection on either a decline in Guzan’s play or the volume of quality scoring opportunities the defense surrendered in front of him (or both). Their 53 goals allowed were eighth-most in MLS and most of any of the 18 playoff teams.

Among Bocanegra’s big purchases this offseason were Norwegian center back Stian Gregersen (transferred from Bordeaux in France’s second division) and defensive midfielder Bartosz Slisz, a Polish national who comes to Atlanta from a Polish top-division team.

They represent the club’s strategical change in international talent acquisition with Lagerwey. Where Eales deputized Bocanegra to bring in young players on the rise who later could be sold for a profit (most significantly winger Miguel Almiron), Lagerwey’s strategy is to find undervalued international players with experience.

Initiated in last summer’s transfer window, it has been a successful venture to this point. Defensive midfielder Tristan Muyumba and wingers Saba Lobjanidze and Xande Silva were productive starters after arriving last summer.

It lends optimism to the season ahead, starting with the opener against the Crew in Columbus. Gregersen is a big and physical defender who likes to press forward and rely on his considerable speed to recover on defense. Slisz is another who can win balls in the defensive third and initiate counterattacks.

It is hoped that they, along with other veteran pickups such as center back Derrick Williams, can infuse the lineup with the consistency and focus that the team sometimes lacked, leading to the defense getting overrun.

Earlier this week, Lobjanidze was asked what he saw from his defensive teammates. He said he liked the aggression and the tactical improvements, but stopped there.

“I can talk,” he said, “but probably you can see it in the first game in Columbus.”

Desperate for a show of improvement after four dismal years, Atlanta United supporters will be looking with most keen interest.


Atlanta United at Columbus, Saturday, 2 p.m., AppleTV, 92.9