The 2021 MLS regular season has long been over and the unforgiving nature of single-elimination playoffs has sent more and more clubs officially to the offseason, joining 13 clubs that missed the playoffs.
Here, we'll cover three questions for every team as the offseason begins in earnest. With most clubs already announcing their roster decisions, the depth charts will look lighter than the first crop of 13. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.
He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.
The Gabriel Heinze era started with much hype and expectation ... but ended after just 13 games. The fit turned out to be very bad.
Atlanta United seemed headed for another hugely disappointing season before interim coach Rob Valentino took charge and got them moving in the right direction again. Then Gonzalo Pineda was named head coach and maintained that upward trajectory, enough to get and stay above the playoff line. Their hopes of accomplishing that during the first half of the season didn't look good.
ATLUTD made a big acquisition in the summer, adding Brazilian winger Luiz Araujo from Lille in a deal that could be worth upwards of nearly $12 million if all incentives are hit. He showed flashes of his big-play ability, as did the attack as a whole, even if it never totally clicked. It was enough to rescue the season.
Expectations will be high once again in 2022. There is opulence all over the roster for Atlanta.
George Bello has never really been a hidden commodity. Even before he signed his Homegrown deal with Atlanta United in 2017, he was a known prospect with US youth national teams. His trajectory continued upward after becoming a professional.
This year was his best yet. Bello made 26 starts with Atlanta and won his first five senior national team caps, including as a starter against Mexico in the Gold Cup final and in a couple of World Cup qualifiers. Turning 20 in January, the timing may be right for a move to Europe with a number of teams interested.
"We've had quite a few inquiries about George Bello," VP and technical director Carlos Bocanegra told media after the season. "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."
Influencing the decision will be the fact that Atlanta have a ready-made replacement in Andrew Gutman. They signed the left back from Celtic last winter and immediately loaned him to the New York Red Bulls, where he was strong in 2021. His loan ended and he'll return to the club for preseason. They do not have a ready-made replacement for USMNT defender Miles Robinson, who took another big step forward this year as one of the best center backs on the continent. There's not much smoke around Robinson yet, though, with Bocanegra saying they're yet to receive an offer for the 24-year-old.
Ezequiel Barco is the other likely transfer, with the Argentine youth international wrapping up his fourth season in Atlanta.
When acquired in 2018 for a then-league record incoming transfer fee ($15 million), the assumption was that he likely would have been in Europe by now. Or at least by this winter window. The assumption was definitely that he would have more than 17 goals and 17 assists in 81 league matches. But through injury, international duty, form and other circumstances, he's started more than 20 league games just once. That came this year, when he delivered his best statistical season with 7g/8a in 25 matches.
Turning 23 in March, the timing for a Barco transfer would make sense. It would also make sense given the reports that Atlanta have already signed Thiago Almada from Velez Sarsfield in a deal worth around $15 million.
There's no way Almada can be on the roster without Barco departing, right? The same way Atlanta couldn't officially sign Pity Martinez a few years ago until Miguel Almiron moved to Newcastle?
Let's talk it out: Josef Martinez is a DP and he can't be bought down. Nor can Luiz Araujo. So that's two spots. Barco occupies the third currently. Perhaps there's a way to try and sneak Almada in as a U22 Initiative signing, but they already have three (Santiago Sosa, Franco Ibarra and Erik Lopez), so one would need to leave. And, given the reported transfer fee and Almada's stature, it feels unlikely his contract would be below the U22 Initiative threshold, which was the maximum salary budget charge ($612,500) last year.
So, in short: It seems incredibly unlikely (if not impossible) but I suppose we can't say so for sure. For the sake of the rest of this piece, just assume it's one of Almada or Barco, not both.
Velez Sarsfield announced last week that Thiago Almada will join Atlanta this winter, but Atlanta released a statement to clarify that they reached an agreement where they can trigger a deal if they choose.
"We have seen reports that we have finalized a deal to acquire Thiago Almada," Atlanta tweeted a few hours after Velez made their announcement. "We have not committed to acquiring the player at this time; however we can confirm that we retain an exclusive option to permanently transfer the player. The option extends into 2022. We will have no further comment on the player at this time."
On the field, the club will hope he's more Almiron than Pity (or Barco) in the sense that he makes others around him better. Barco and Pity each had moments of individual brilliance, but too often it was just that – individual.
The Velez Sarsfield wonderkid has 24 goals and 11 assists in 98 professional appearances already by the age of 20. How will he fit with Josef Martinez, Marcelino Moreno and Luiz Araujo?
It's not easy taking over a club midseason and implementing meaningful, deep change. Pineda (plus Vanni Sartini in Vancouver and Pablo Mastroeni in Salt Lake) deserve credit for that. He took a team below the playoff line that had hit a wall and turned the season around, making the playoffs. That's a success, irrespective of the talent or roster spend.
But by the playoffs, the knock on Atlanta was their attack was a collection of talented individuals rather than a cohesive unit. How can that change in 2022?
We'll have to see for sure when the roster is closer to being finalized; there are too many questions right now surrounding Barco and Almada, plus the defensive unit. Pineda will look to evolve things even further in preseason.
"That's a hope that with a long preseason, we can work on those things, but also the mental side," Pineda 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."
Another wrinkle is the transfer dealings in the offseason. Their core is largely set, but both Pineda and Bocanegra spoke of the importance of adding another veteran or two to the team to help with maturity and leadership.
Pineda also tried both a 3-4-2-1 and 4-2-3-1 last year. Flexibility is hugely important in the modern game, so expect multiple systems next year as well. What will be his first choice?
- As written above, just going to assume the club can only have one of Barco or Almada.
- Almada is on here because it sounds a whole lot like that deal is done or will be done.
- Did Atlanta pick up Franco Escobar's contract with eyes toward him returning to the club ... or just to ensure they don't lose an asset for free? Seems like the latter, but we'll see.