Atlanta United are in the position they expect – without the expectations.
The Five Stripes are an Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs team. They've always stated that competing for trophies is their goal, and ... well ... making the playoffs undeniably means they’re doing that.
But instead of entering as one of the league’s most feared teams, they’re an out-and-out underdog, tabbed by oddsmakers to be bounced in Round One against New York City FC or by New England in the Eastern Conference Semifinals if they pull off an upset on Sunday at Yankee Stadium (3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN Deportes).
From a wide-lensed view from space of the 2021 season as a whole, being the East's No. 5 seed is a failure for Atlanta United. This is the most valuable roster in the league. They should be more than a dark horse. And yet when you look closer and split the season into the before and after of a struggle-filled coaching hire, you see a team that recovered when others in similar situations either couldn't or wouldn't.
So how much do you reward Atlanta for cleaning up their own mess? It’s not clear. You do have to appreciate that they didn’t wallow in it, though. And even if they’re not a favorite, they have the talent to compete and place themselves in a position to get lucky. In a single-elimination scenario, that’s all you need.
Because this is a talented team that's starting to see returns from all that transfer spending. Marcelino Moreno finished the year 11th in American Soccer Analysis’ goals added metric. Ezequiel Barco has appeared to finally come good (and healthy) in his fourth MLS season, scoring seven goals and assisting eight more. Luiz Araujo’s quality on the ball has been instantly recognizable since quite literally his very first touch in Atlanta. Josef Martinez and Miles Robinson are still who they've always been.
Yet there’s a cohesiveness missing that keeps ATLUTD struggling to control games and find chances against set defenses, to finish in transition or prevent the opposition from creating chances at the end of matches. In theory, they could solve those issues over the next week and win a few playoff games. They could even win a few without solving them if one of the most talented backlines in MLS keeps a shutout and someone in that expensive front four produces a moment or two of brilliance. Either scenario is a little more unlikely than anyone in Atlanta wants.
Job 1: Build continuity in culture
The project this offseason is to construct and mold a team where the parts contribute to a greater sum. Life as the anti-Colorado can only get you so far. And there’s reason to believe that can happen by team opening weekend next February, weirdly, because not much is set to change. You don’t become Seattle East with massive turnover every season.
Atlanta United manager Gonzalo Pineda – formerly an assistant on Brian Schmetzer's Seattle staff – knows that well.
“Well No. 1, I would say that Brian Schmetzer is a big part of the success [in Seattle]. After that, obviously, they're a great organization. They have great players,” Pineda said earlier this year. “After that they are consistent and they give some period of time to work through certain principles and certain ideas. And then the success came probably together with that idea. The consistency in players, consistency in coaching staffs was something that has been successful for them.”
Pineda will return next season for his first full year in Atlanta. So will assistant manager Rob Valentino, who orchestrated Atlanta’s initial turnaround as interim manager after Gabriel Heinze’s dismissal and signed a contract extension this week. Valentino flipped the team culture on its head overnight, and Pineda has proven capable of building upon it.
You need that continuity in culture to establish long-term success. And with Pineda in his first head coaching role and seemingly in no hurry to head elsewhere, he could be the first long-term manager in team history.
Carlos Bocanegra also signed an extension and will be returning in his role as vice president and technical director for the sixth season. His first task this offseason will be clearing out some of his less successful signings to clear space for complementary pieces to additions that have panned out. Bocanegra's track record so far is mixed, but previous lessons learned, the gravitational force of Pineda holding things together for the foreseeable future and Atlanta’s deep pockets are reasons for optimism.
How would Almada fit Atlanta's vision?
The foundation of a winning culture is there. Now Atlanta must find players that both tactically compliment a team that has played disjointedly against the league's best – winning once in 15 games against playoff teams – and fit into an organization trying to recapture the imagination of a city that hasn’t quite figured out how to appreciate anything short of a title contender.
One piece looks to be Velez Sarsfield attacking midfielder Thiago Almada. Nothing is certain, but Almada has already told media members several times that a deal for him to join Atlanta this winter is done. The same deal reportedly nearly went through this summer before Atlanta turned their attention toward Araujo.
On the field, Almada fits a similar profile to other Argentine players Atlanta United have previously acquired: A young attacker attracting attention from Europe, but not commitment. The most parallel comparison is Barco, who took three-and-a-half seasons to come good in MLS, and who's the most likely player to be sold to make room for another Designated Player-type signing like Almada.
For now, though, Atlanta focus on turning their midseason turnaround into a surprise playoff run. The 2018 MLS Cup champions will need to catch some breaks and find a balance in midfield they haven’t had this season. It’s not likely. But it is possible. And for a team that went nearly three months of the 2021 campaign without winning a game, that's a remarkable accomplishment.
It’s also not where they wanted to be. Both things can be true. That there remains a slight chance to win another trophy is something to celebrate. That it's not a larger chance is also right to frustrate Atlanta supporters, considering the money spent on the 2021 club.
But it would have been far worse to do nothing. And if the mistake of Heinze's hire eventually leads to long-term sustainability under Pineda, and clarity on how to build Atlanta into a perennial contender in MLS and even Concacaf, then it’s hard to not call 2021 a success.