But there’s also simply enjoying their soccer again, especially after the 2018 MLS Cup champions regressed considerably — missing the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs. The Eastern Conference playoff field expanded to 10 teams on account of COVID-19 pandemic forces, yet they finished 12th in a 14-team field.
“You see teams around the league that are getting good results week in and week out, and you see their locker room and how much fun they're having on the field,” Lennon said. “I think that directly correlates, and I know this is a group of guys that wants to have fun and joke around, even look like we're having a blast out on the pitch when we're playing.”
Lennon sensed those qualities when he was traded from Real Salt Lake to ATLUTD in December 2019, but they slowly fizzled out. There are a few lightning-rod moments from 2020 – Josef Martinez suffered a torn ACL in their first game, the club mutually parted ways with Frank de Boer after the MLS is Back Tournament and Pity Martinez was transferred to Saudi Arabian club Al-Nassr – but also a common undercurrent.
“That's what I saw when I came into Atlanta United, I saw a group of players that was so eager to play every single weekend and get positive results,” Lennon continued. “We just need to get back to that, and I think once we get back to having positive, good results, I think that'll transition into the mood around the facility.”
Atlanta struggled to find the right attacking mix, and that’s beyond Josef’s injury and Pity’s departure. Ezequiel Barco had his worst MLS season yet stats-wise (2g, 3a in 1034 minutes), and their 23 goals scored was second-worst in MLS above only FC Cincinnati (12).
Jurgen Damm, who was signed in July after time at Tigres UANL, feels they lacked sharpness in front of goal. He noted that landing DP midfielder Marcelino Moreno from Lanus helped, but their goal-front struggles from 2020 are hard to ignore.
“I think what we have to improve for next season is just that precision to finish plays, because I think this year those chances that we were creating or whatever the case in the final third, we just weren't able to end them in goals,” Damm said through a translator. “So I think that's something we can improve on for the next season. But I think the positive is we have a very united group, guys who are always working really hard, a united group on and off the pitch. And I think the mood and the unity of the team is still a very positive thing. Then we'll be able to get some players who are difference-makers to help us next season.”
Before the 2021 season arrives, Atlanta look ahead to the resumption of the 2020 Concacaf Champions League tournament in mid-December against Liga MX’s Club America. They face a 3-0 hole, and their quarterfinal match will be played at Exploria Stadium, the home of Orlando City SC.
Speaking bluntly, Lennon feels ATLUTD players need to take a hard look in the mirror. The roster for ‘21 is bound to have changes, but he feels there’s also an accountability factor.
“I think we need to take full responsibility on what happened,” Lennon said. “Every single individual that took part in the season this year needs to look at yourself in the mirror and see what you did, what you can improve on and the way you need to act day in and day out to help this franchise win games."