Bradley’s Buzz: It’s time for Atlanta United to get things right

 Garth Lagerwey answered questions from the press member during a press conference after being introduced as the new Atlanta United President & CEO  on Tuesday, November 29, 2022.  Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Garth Lagerwey answered questions from the press member during a press conference after being introduced as the new Atlanta United President & CEO on Tuesday, November 29, 2022. Miguel Martinez /

In the first minute of its inaugural match, Atlanta United had bettered any best-case scenario. It was March 5, 2017. On that Sunday night, a throng of 55,297 gathered to watch the city’s newest team play in temporary housing.

MLS commissioner Don Garber arrived 10 minutes in, having commuted north from Orlando’s opener. He spent the remainder of the first half elbowing league staffers and saying, “Can you believe THIS?” At halftime – United led 1-nil on Yamil Asad’s goal – Garber said: “I was just speechless, and I’m not speechless very often.”

Technically, Atlanta United was an expansion franchise. It became the franchise that propelled MLS – in operation since 1996 – into an expansive era. That opener at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium lit the fuse. Not until September would Arthur Blank’s soccer team move into Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new edifice with the then-balky roof. On Oct. 17, United drew 71,874, then the biggest crowd in MLS annals

Even Blank didn’t envision filling an NFL-sized building. His soccer team hadn’t planned to sell many upper-deck seats. Demand trumped expectation.

We cannot discuss United without mentioning its gate – it has led MLS in attendance every season except 2020, the COVID year – but there was more to United than turnstile counts. It made the playoffs in Year 1. It won the MLS Cup in Year 2. It became the model franchise, having fulfilled Garber’s vision of tapping the millennial market. (Fans of Blank’s United aren’t necessarily fans of Blank’s Falcons.)

United’s first coach was Gerardo Martino, known as Tata. He’d coached both Barcelona and Argentina. Neither stint lasted long, but he’d worked at the highest level of club and international football. At both jobs, he’d worked with Lionel Messi, the sport’s magic man.

Martino’s final United game was the MLS Cup final of Dec. 8, 2018. United beat Portland 2-0. He left to coach Mexico, among the world’s more thankless tasks. He’s now with Inter Miami, again working before sellout crowds, again working with Messi.

To say Atlanta United hasn’t moved beyond Martino is simplistic. It’s also true. Frank de Boer – fired after brief tenures by Inter Milan of Serie A and Crystal Palace of the Premier League – was a curious choice as his successor, though if Josef Martinez had converted a penalty to make it 2-0 in the 11th minute of the 2019 MLS Cup semifinal against Toronto, United might well have taken a second title.

Nine months later, de Boer was gone. Gabriel Heinze lasted 10 months to the day. Gonzalo Pineda made it through two years and almost 10 months. He was fired Monday, having led United to 38 wins over 110 games. Thus has Rob Valentino begun a second stint as this team’s interim coach.

The former description of Atlanta United – “big crowds, good team” – has been halved. Over its first three seasons, it finished fourth, second and third in the MLS East. It hasn’t broken the top four since. It hasn’t won a playoff round since. As we speak, it holds 13th place in the 15-team East. It has won once in league play since March 31. It has lost its past five home games.

Sunday’s home loss to Charlotte doomed Pineda, though last week’s how’d-that-happen win in Fort Lauderdale showed us why he had to go. On the road against Messi and his fellow Barca alums – and Martino, too – United led 2-0 at the half and won 3-1. If you’re capable of that, you shouldn’t go months between wins.

United hasn’t fallen off the map. Average attendance at Mercedes-Benz this season is 47,638; no other MLS club averages 35K. And yes, United still outdraws the Braves. No longer, though, does the rest of MLS view Atlanta as an industry standard. Of the 12 East teams ahead of United, four began play after this one. Among that number is Miami, which by landing Messi changed everything.

United hasn’t yet gone the aging-big-name route – no Beckham, no Zlatan – and I’m not sure it should. (Also: There’s no other Messi.) It can, however, recoup a dollop of credibility by finding a proven coach. Heinze’s biggest job before coming here was Velez Sarsfield in Argentina. Pineda hadn’t been a head coach.

Garth Lagerwey arrived in November 2022 from Seattle, among the best MLS clubs. This will be his first major hire as United president/CEO. This once-model franchise needs to remember how to get things right. Those big crowds are starving for big results.

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