With their Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs venture ending after just one game, Atlanta United now embark on a pivotal offseason.
After a regular season that started in turmoil with a string of poor results and the departure of head coach Gabriel Heinze, the Five Stripes looked better under new hire Gonzalo Pineda, eventually making the playoffs as the East's No. 5 seed before bowing out 2-0 in Round One to NYCFC.
Speaking with reporters on a Wednesday video call, technical director Carlos Bocanegra said improved form leaves him confident that his roster has a good foundation in place. When he thinks about what needs adjusting, Bocanegra said it's not about wholesale changes, but rather adding veteran experience to complement a young and talented core.
"What we'd like to add is similar to what we spoke about last time: Can we add a veteran or two to the roster to give us a little bit more game understanding, game management, the understanding of the league, situations?" Bocanegra posed. "Things like that to balance out some of the youngsters that are young, hungry, ready to fly and go forward every time where sometimes we need to put our foot on the ball. Guys that can be a little bit more vocal on the pitch in certain positions.
"So those are the things that we're looking to build upon. But we're extremely happy with this group. And you know, like I said, we're pretty fortunate that we get to keep the majority of the core together for next season. So we're going to build on that and you know, we have a full preseason with Gonzalo and this group and he really gets to sink his teeth into the them."
There are also a few question marks regarding players potentially garnering transfer interest from overseas.
Left back George Bello is one of the primary names to watch in that regard, coming off a strong season for Atlanta that also saw him emerge for the US men's national team. Players with the youth and upside of Bello are valuable commodities, and Bocanegra said that clubs around the world have indeed taken notice.
"We've had quite a few inquiries about George Bello," Bocanegra said. "Obviously he's a 19-year-old left-sided player that's very dynamic, very athletic, caps with the national team, 30-40 professional games under his belt. So you can imagine the type of interest that he's garnered. So, again, it'll be a tough decision for us in the offseason like quite a few of these other guys that we have."
For Pineda, the offseason is about determining the formula for getting Atlanta back to their high-flying early heights, when the Five Stripes won MLS Cup in just their second MLS campaign (2018) by playing one of the league's most exciting brands of soccer.
Although Atlanta showed flashes at points this season, Pineda said they never quite reached the consistent level that he'd like to sustain over 34 games in 2022.
"On the soccer side, I would like this team to improve on creating more and better chances," Pineda said. "I think we saw that for a few games, but in others, we probably were not as good as we hope to be. But I would like the team to be even more aggressive when we are on the ball, trying to look to break lines all the time, all the time, all the time trying to break lines.
"But the knowledge that I have from this league is that transition is big in this league. So at the same time we want to continue to be aggressive on the ball, try to create chances, try to break lines all the time, try to be very proactive and playing a very energetic style of football where everybody's playing and moving, playing and screening and that's what the fans enjoy."
There were bumps in the road of his debut campaign as an MLS head coach, and the playoff exit came earlier than hoped. But Pineda said he's relishing the chance to get a full preseason with Atlanta to further leave his imprint.
"That's a hope that with a long preseason, we can work on those things, but also the mental side," the former Seattle Sounders assistant said. "There were many games where probably we have a very young roster, a lot of young players that probably they are lacking some of that experience in the league and the last minutes of the games and set pieces, the importance of set pieces. ... So it's just those key factors that I'm looking for, to teach the players and to try to show them that is a good way to grow as a team.
"I think we're going to be a very good team next year. But obviously we need to go through the process of preseason and hopefully get there very soon."