When Atlanta United returned from the MLS is Back Tournament and then mutually agreed to part ways with head coach Frank de Boer, veteran midfielder Jeff Larentowicz sensed that it was “one of the lowest points” for a club that stormed into MLS in 2017 and has enjoyed enviable trophies and fanfare since.
Veteran goalkeeper Brad Guzan also sensed that, but felt something had to change given the Five Stripes' self-imposed standard. They won MLS Cup in 2018 and the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup last year, and in the process played some of the most exciting attacking soccer MLS has seen during its quarter-century.
Now as Atlanta return to their 2020 season against Nashville SC on Saturday (7 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, on DAZN in Canada), interim head coach Stephen Glass will patrol the sidelines. And more than anything, those playing for him are hoping to recapture their identity as the former Atlanta United 2 head coach looks to steady the ship.
“To be positive, to play forward, to attack,” Guzan said of their objective via a conference call. “People think of Atlanta United as this attacking team, exciting team. That’s what we want to be as players, so now Glassy and his staff, they’re now giving the freedom and the responsibility to the players to go in and express themselves and be forward-thinking players, be positive-playing players.
“Not being, I don’t want to use the word conservative, but to be on the front foot, to play the ball forward, to have players in attacking positions, to have players that are open to pass the ball forward to. We want to get back to that, we want to get back to scoring goals, to being exciting, to being a threat and to making it a scary thing when teams see they’re playing Atlanta United.”
Larentowicz said it’s incumbent on players to institute those changes. De Boer is out, yes, but a coaching change only goes so far.
“I think that Frank had come in with a certain style of play and it was difficult to adapt at first,” Larentowicz said. “When you think back on Costa Rica and the Champions League, how we were playing at the beginning of 2019, you’re rewiring the computer in a sense. You’re trying to get guys to do different things and it took us a while to adjust. But I felt like we did that over 2019. (In) 2020, it didn’t come together in the same way.
“I think there’s probably going to be, to stick with the analogy, another rewiring or a sense of going back to some of the things that we had done in the past as a club and those identity touchstones that the club was built on back in 2017. Hopefully you begin to see those on Saturday. I can’t promise that it’s going to be an immediate return, but that’s what we’re working towards.”
Guzan said the rewiring, to use Larentowicz’s word, has been unfolding on the training ground with greater communication across the board. There were similar discussions when De Boer was at the helm, Guzan said. but not to the same extent.
“It’s him and his staff being receptive to us as players of what we’re experiencing and what we’re seeing on the field, and it’s also them telling us from a coaching staff standpoint this is what they expect, this is what they want,” Guzan said. “So it’s both, and I think you look at the best teams in the world, the best teams in the league, there has to be a dialogue from players to coach, from coach to players. There needs to be an understanding of what is actually happening on the field and how you get success. You need to have that back-and-forth, so that part has been really good.”
Guzan also stressed change won't be instant, especially with star striker Josef Martinez on the season-ending injury list. Some attacking reinforcements have arrived via winger Jurgen Damm and forward Erick “Cubo” Torres, who both boast Mexico national team experience, and the high-priced talents of Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez remain.
The group, on paper, should still be one of the better attacking fronts over the remainder of 2020. The emotion of the recent past, however, adds to the challenge.
“This isn’t a knock on Frank. We, as a group, need to return to winning and enjoying playing on the field,” Larentowicz said. “We definitely had wins and losses in 2017 and fewer losses in 2018, but I think we were always kind of enjoying what we were doing. 2019, towards the end when you’re winning trophies, we were enjoying each other as well. We need to return to that."