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Frank de Boer never seemed to fit Atlanta United

October 19, 2019 Atlanta - Atlanta United head coach Frank de Boer reacts in the second half during the first round of the MLS playoffs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, October 19, 2019. Atlanta United won 1-0 over the New England Revolution. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
October 19, 2019 Atlanta - Atlanta United head coach Frank de Boer reacts in the second half during the first round of the MLS playoffs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, October 19, 2019. Atlanta United won 1-0 over the New England Revolution. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Soccer is a funny game, and here we mean not funny-ha-ha but funny-strange. Take the curious case of Frank de Boer, who has lasted through only one of his past four seasons as coach. He was fired by Inter Milan after 14 matches in 2016; a year later, he was dumped by Crystal Palace after five. Now’s he gone from Atlanta United after eight well-spaced matches in 2020, the final three of which saw his side score nary a goal.

Given those three examples, we can make a compelling case that de Boer is a lousy coach. But what do we make of last season? In 2019, de Boer’s Atlanta United won two in-season trophies and nearly the MLS Cup. Had Josef Martinez not missed a penalty against Toronto FC, Atlanta United would have led the conference final 2-0 in the 11th minute and would surely have played host to the league championship game for a second year running.

So: Bad coach de Boer came very close to being defending MLS champion de Boer. This goes to show ... what? That a myopic squirrel can sometimes kick an acorn into a net?

Atlanta United coulda and probably shoulda won the MLS Cup again in 2019, but nobody would have confused the Atlanta United of last season with its immediate predecessor. It mustered 11 fewer points than in the title-taking 2018. It scored 12 fewer league goals than in each of its two previous seasons under Tata Martino. It went from being the MLS’ sleekest team to just another pretty good club. This year it stopped being even pretty good.

Even the best year – the only not-awful year this coach has had since leaving Ajax, the club of his youth – of de Boer’s past four started in a such a way that you wondered if he would last any longer than he had at Inter and Palace. Atlanta United won only two of its first eight games in 2019, and one of the victories came in a CONCACAF Champions League tie in which it trailed 3-0 after the first leg. The hashtag #deBoerOut became an actual thing.

Then the Dutchman made some tactical adjustments – generalization time: The Dutch can be stubborn about their football; they didn’t invent the game, but they believe they perfected it – and Atlanta United started winning again. (So: #deBoerNotOut) But his team never was as dauntless as Martino’s had been, which was surely inevitable but nonetheless obvious. Pity Martinez, imported from Argentina to fill the void left by Miguel Almiron’s exit to Newcastle, took forever to settle. Players complained that the new man wasn’t letting them, er, play.

Much of this angst might have been washed away had Atlanta United lifted another MLS Cup, but Josef Martinez missed a penalty and his time contrived to lose a game it dominated, and then Martinez tore his ACL in this year’s league opener in Nashville. Then the season stopped. It resumed with Atlanta United playing three games in the MLS Is Back tournament at Disney. The team was eliminated after losing 1-nil, 1-nil and 1-nil.

Atlanta United was never going to be as good without J. Martinez, but still. It had more possession than its opponent in two of the three matches; in the third, it was reduced to 10 men in the 26th minute, but still had the ball 47 percent of the time. This, alas, came to be the de Boer signature – plenty of possession, not enough goals.

The scoreless-in-Orlando experience wasn’t, we must note, the worst spell any de Boer team has had. Crystal Palace scored no goals in its first four league games under him, whereupon he got the sack. (And whereupon Jose Mourinho pronounced him “the worst manager in Premier League history.”) It was coming off that ignominious severance that Atlanta United, which has made many splendid moves, pulled the biggest clunker of its existence: It hired FDB to follow Tata.

At best, it seemed the sort of move that might work in spite of itself. Atlanta United had so many good players that you figured they could win with Barney Rubble making out the team sheet. But they fell short last year, and this time they never got started. Martinez’s knee had much to do with that, and the virus-mandated layoff did nobody any favors. Even so, there’s no way a team with Ezequiel Barco and P. Martinez should go 270 minutes without scoring.

Credit to Atlanta United for grasping reality and cutting its losses. This always seemed a forced marriage. As with most most forced marriages, divorce was inevitable.

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