Atlanta United find themselves in a bit of a weird spot.
It's not just the fact that the team fell well short of expectations, both internal and external, by failing to make the 2020 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. It's also because they have to make a number of offseason decisions despite their season not completely being over just yet.
Atlanta are still alive in the Concacaf Champions League, though on the brink of elimination, with a 3-0 deficit to Liga MX giants Club America as they pick up where they left off in March before all North American soccer was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That doesn't stop the offseason deadlines and milestones in MLS, one of which the club just passed in announcing their end-of-season roster decisions.
“We have a little bit of roster flexibility, we will be able to strengthen this offseason," technical director & VP Carlos Bocanegra told media on a virtual press conference. "Without getting into it too much, we feel good about our possibilities for next year.”
Among the key names not returning in 2021 include one-time wunderkind Andrew Carleton and club leader Jeff Larentowicz. Larentowicz's contract expired after 2020 and Bocanegra confirmed the club aren't in negotiations to potentially bring him back, ending the 37-year-old's four-year run with the team. He made 119 appearances with Atlanta, helped navigate their expansion season and was integral to winning MLS Cup in 2018 as well as the US Open Cup and Campeones Cup in 2019.
"Jeff is going to take some time to think about what he’s going to do for next year," Bocanegra said. "He’s had a fantastic career for us here. He’s a wonderful leader, a massive part of the club for the last four years. Great professional, you can’t say enough nice things about Jeff and what he meant to this club. When the time comes, we look forward to welcoming him back to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to appreciate him and all he’s done.”
Larentowicz is an MLS legend and currently has the second-most appearances of any outfield player in league history. He began his career in 2005 with the New England Revolution.
Atlanta's 2021 roster currently sits at 23 players, including two (Erik Lopez and Efrain Morales) whose contracts don't go into effect until January 1, meaning they can't feature in the CCL in December. Erick "Cubo" Torres and Brendan Moore were among the players whose contracts were declined but have decided to continue with the team through their CCL run.
Bocanegra was coy to reveal much insight into their plans, including whether or not they have the capability to buy down Marcelino Moreno's cap hit to open one more Designated Player slot.
“There’s all kinds of different mechanisms we can go through, we’re not going to discuss the internal workings of our strategy," Bocanegra said. "There’s all kinds of different things you can do.”
The biggest decision looming over the club this winter is their vacancy at head coach since July 24 when the club mutually parted ways with Frank de Boer. There has been a scarcity of names linked, though reports out of South America suggest Gabriel Heinz is a candidate. Bocanegra provided no update on the search but assured fans not to worry.
Bocanegra also said it wasn't much of an issue to begin the offseason decision-making process without a head coach in place.
"These were decisions we had to make, there’s a timeline and deadline," Bocanegra said. "As we bring a new coach in and start working towards the future, it’s still early. There’s a lot more to be done in the offseason. We’ll have some deep discussions with the new coach when they come in.”
For now, Atlanta fans will have to be patient until news emerges.