And my work here is done!
*editor hits me with cattle prod*
Ok, ok, I’ll add a few thoughts to Rob’s admirably concise summation of Atlanta’s 2023 season. Let’s start with the big one: This is the first time since 2018 where it really feels like this team’s headed in the right direction.
Their winter transfer window heading into this past season (Giorgos Giakoumakis incoming and several high-priced players outgoing, along with a decent amount of GAM for young George Campbell) was very good, and their summer window (a combined $2.5m for Tristan Muyumba, Saba Lobjanidze and Xande Silva, all of whom are good enough to make next year’s Best XI) was excellent.
The reason is they don’t just have talent; they actually have talent that fits together now. Garth Lagerwey has said since his arrival 12 months ago that he wasn’t going to be doing the nitty-gritty roster building he spearheaded for RSL and then Seattle, but c’mon – look at those two windows compared to virtually any of the transfer windows this team’s had since 2018. There is a clarity of vision now that’s been missing, and it showed.
But Rome wasn’t built in a day, or even throughout two transfer windows. There are, as Rob said, more tough choices to come. For one, if they don’t give Miles Robinson a DP contract, he’s probably gone. And, well, I don’t think he was quite DP-caliber this past season.
For another, Brad Guzan is a club legend. But he’s not the guy he was five years ago when he earned that status, and I don’t think the underlying numbers (they are grim) are lying about his performance this season.
Matheus Rossetto is, I’m sure, a much easier decision. Selling Almada? That could be very, very hard.
And at the end of all of it (or maybe at the beginning): What is the status of head coach Gonzalo Pineda? I’m not sure he did enough. I’m not sure he didn’t do enough, either.
Tough, tough choices. But again: This team’s in infinitely better shape than they were a year ago.
Formation & Tactics
Once Pineda had all his pieces post-Leagues Cup, Atlanta achieved their final form as a front-foot, high-possession 4-2-3-1 team that ran through Almada. As per American Soccer Analysis, he had more than 22% of the team’s touches in the attacking third, which is one of the highest marks in the league.
Why not, right? The dude played at a Landon Donovan MLS MVP-caliber level. He’s not going to win it – we all know it’s deservedly going to Luciano Acosta – but there is a very strong argument to be made that Almada was just as good on a game-by-game basis.
The only real wrinkle to the 4-2-3-1 was Pineda’s usage of right back Brooks Lennon. He pinched in a bunch, sometimes as a deep-lying midfielder in possession, but more often as an extra attacker running up the central channel.
Where did this come from??
Fun, effective, tactical soccer.
That 5-2 win over Miami was the high point in a lot of ways – including and especially for the shade the team’s social media admin threw at a certain other Argentine No. 10’s culinary habits afterwards – but three weeks beforehand they did something no team in MLS history had managed: They beat Nashville SC 4-0.
Nashville had only ever lost a single game by as many as three goals, but Atlanta absolutely smoked them; 4-0 might’ve undersold it. That came on the heels of a 2-0 win over Seattle.
They’d really started to cook, is what I’m saying, and were one of the better teams in the league down the stretch.
But nothing beats a playoff win, and Atlanta didn’t have one of those since 2019. So the nod goes to Match 2 of that Round One Best-of-3 series against Columbus:
Sure, they’d go back up to Columbus and lose the final game by an identical 4-2 scoreline. But it was fun!
They were straight-up embarrassing in Leagues Cup. Their performance against Messi and Miami, with a global audience looking on, was a freaking disaster.
Just one rudimentary mistake after another. No backline shape, no play for how and when to get pressure to the ball, and no understanding of the basic things you have to do to not get pummeled.
It was really, really bad. One of the worst games any MLS team played this year.
I do think Lennon’s ability to come inside and help set the tempo/crack open a low block is more of a revelation than what the guy on the other side of the backline did, but since I already talked about Lennon, let’s talk about that other guy here instead.
That “other guy” is young Caleb Wiley, the homegrown left back/left winger who burst out of the gates scoring goals but finished a year more notable for his increasing defensive nous.
Now, if you’re a certain type of Atlanta United or US youth national team fan, then this isn’t a revelation to you: Wiley’s always been considered an incredibly high-upside prospect with the tools to potentially command an 8-figure transfer fee from a huge European club someday. So I would consider this season more of like a 90th percentile outcome rather than a true revelation.
However you want to classify it, the kid was superb at a really young age, and there’s a decent chance he becomes one of the myriad tough decisions the front office has to make this winter.
I really thought it was going to happen for Santiago Sosa. Man, it did not.
I still think the talent’s there, though, and hope he lands somewhere else in MLS where they can coax it out of him.
Five Players to Build Around
- Almada (AM): Assuming they don’t get a Godfather offer, he enters 2024 as the favorite to finish second in the MVP race.
- Giakoumakis (FW): He enters 2024 as the favorite to finish second in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race.
- Saba (W): An excellent goalscoring winger with an eye for the final ball.
- Silva (W): An excellent goalscoring winger with an eye for the final ball (his half-season loan has a purchase option).
- Muyumba (CM/DM): Super energetic ball-winner who’s a very underrated ball-progressor and is better than folks realize on the ball in traffic.
I will refer you back to the opening of this column, and the aforementioned tough decisions they’re facing this winter. To the above, I will add they need depth just about everywhere (winger is the only exception). And even if Robinson stays, they need help fixing that backline.
Lots and lots of work to do this winter.