Decision Day for the 2022 MLS season is upon us and more teams head towards the reckoning with their Audi MLS Cup Playoffs fate sealed, officially eliminated from contention. Focus shifts to the offseason and what's next.
Here, we'll be covering three questions for every team moving forward. 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 (Atlanta United version). Read that, too.
He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.
It’s never boring with Atlanta United, even in down years like this one. The club has missed the playoffs for the second time in three seasons, as ATLUTD have drifted far from the heights set by Tata Martino and the core of the first few years.
With a vacancy at club president, a controversy around their biggest star and more, Atlanta United will be among the most interesting clubs this offseason.
This was left intentionally vague because there are oh so many questions around one of the league’s superstars.
(And, no, he hasn’t looked like a superstar on the field very much for two years, but he’s keeping that descriptor for the time being. Did you see his bike on Saturday? Just in case you forgot...)
WATCH: Is this Josef Martínez's greatest goal ever? All hail The King!
Martinez enters the final year of his contract in 2023. He’s been publicly unhappy (numerous times since Tata Martino left). He was suspended by the team for a week this year. He hasn’t looked anywhere near 2017-19 Josef when he had 77g/11a in 83 matches as Atlanta won MLS Cup, US Open Cup and Campeones Cup. He doesn’t run as much or nearly as fast, now two and a half years removed from a torn ACL.
He hasn’t started any of the club’s last eight matches and has started just three of the last 15. Martinez is firmly second-choice in Atlanta, behind either Dom Dwyer or Ronaldo Cisneros. That was an unfathomable reality even four months ago.
I don’t know how this gets resolved. I’m just going to throw up a bunch of Josef-related questions:
- Does Josef want to leave? Will he try to force his way out if so?
- Does head coach Gonzalo Pineda want him to stay?
- Does the front office want the DP spot open?
- If everybody can find a way forward… will we see the best of Josef again?
- Does he fit with Thiago Almada and Luiz Araujo, their other Designated Players?
- If everybody does want him to move on… who wants him? MLS or abroad?
- If he stays in MLS, what’s his value on a DP deal and two injury-slowed seasons?
- What MLS teams can open a DP spot, have a need at center forward and want to take the chance?
It’s easy to quantify how incredible he was on the field for Atlanta United. It’s difficult to accurately depict how much he meant to the club from their expansion season and how beloved he is in that city. It’s difficult to put a value on the way he transcended to the top of culture in that city as few MLS players do. He’s a king in his kingdom.
On Saturday, TUDN's Michele Giannone reported that Martinez requested a meeting with the front office. The Athletic's Felipe Cardenas added the two sides are not aligned.
Pineda has said the right things publicly, that their relationship is fine, that Josef is a good guy and a valued part of the team – all of that... but has had numerous chances to put his name on wanting Martinez back in 2023 and has side-stepped the question every time. The latest came after the 2-1 loss Saturday, where he was asked point-blank if this weekend's season finale could be Josef's last game in Atlanta.
"I don't know the answer to that," Pineda told reporters. "There are many things in place with me, with many players, with the roster, with everything."
We’ll see how this plays out.
Along with Martinez’s benching, perhaps a bit more quietly, Pineda has also dropped Marcelino Moreno to balance the group. The attack has been built around Almada and Araujo down the stretch run here.
It’s a good starting point. Almada is the most expensive signing in MLS history (reported $16 million from Velez Sarsfield) and just got called into Argentina’s senior national team. Araujo is two years removed from playing a regular role for Lille during their shocking title-winning season in Ligue 1 and is in his prime. He is also one of the most expensive players in league history.
With all four on the field, Atlanta scored four goals in 381 minutes (0.9 goals per 90). Without all four this season, they’ve scored 1.4 goals per 90. Small sample size caution, of course, but the numbers enhance the eye test deduction that those four pieces didn’t really fit. It’s a collection of talent rather than a cohesive attacking unit.
With just Almada and Araujo starting (and more runners/defensively responsible players around them), Atlanta have found their best run of form all season. That comes even as Araujo has underperformed his expected goals total more than any other player in the league.
Obviously the “what should they do in attack” starts with the Josef question. He stays and they try to work it out, or he goes and there’s an open DP spot to work with.
Pineda has tried a few things and it was largely working down the stretch.
Atlanta United president Darren Eales returned to England this summer to become CEO of Premier League side Newcastle United. The position remains vacant as the club searches for his successor.
He’ll be a really tough act to follow.
Eales was a founding executive of Atlanta United. He was there from the beginning – long before the first match in 2017 – and his imprints are all over the success the club enjoyed immediately upon entering MLS.
What are they looking for?
“The vision for an attacking ball club that plays a really forward, fast, engaging style of soccer, that's our brand,” Steven Cannon, CEO of the club’s parent company, Arthur M. Blank Sports and Entertainment, told reporters in July. “In fact, the good news is that Carlos and Darren really codified in writing the kind of ball club that we want to be, and Arthur buys into that, I buy into that. We're not going to reinvent who we are and go off to a completely different style. We know what we want. It's been very successful, and now it's our job to deliver on that.”
It’s a hugely important hire to help get ATLUTD back on track or continue down this middling path. After a few disappointing seasons, fans are growing impatient and concerned.
"It’s great that our fans are already sounding off,” Cannon said. “It's another health indicator that they care deeply about this club, and they've got something to say about it. The day that the supporters kind of get quiet is the day I start to worry, so I'm happy they're sounding off.”
A couple more thoughts:
- The defense will get boosts from potential Defender of the Year candidate Miles Robinson and goalkeeper Brad Guzan returning from season-ending Achilles injuries. Will veteran d-mid Ozzie Alonso be back in 2023?
- Will Juan Jose Sanchez Purata return at center back? He’s on loan from Liga MX’s Tigres with an option to extend the loan for 2023 and a purchase option.
- What about goalkeeper Raul Gudino? He’s here through the end of the 2022 MLS season with an option to extend.
- Will Atlanta target more MLS veterans in free agency/trades?
- Where can the front office create flexibility to refresh the squad?