EDITOR'S NOTE: Before you know it, February 29 will be here. That's the kickoff to the 25th season in Major League Soccer history and we're getting you ready for the 2020 campaign with the stories, personalities and questions that will leave their mark on the season to come.
In Frank de Boer’s first season as Atlanta United coach, he came under fire for three things: public relations blunders, less-than-thrilling possession-based soccer and not being Tata Martino.
Those are in descending order of how culpable he personally was for each. He won’t ever be Tata Martino. None of us will be, and the world is worse off for not having more Tata Martinos.
FdB can probably take partial blame for often failing to set hearts racing with the on-field product. Yet in De Boer's defense, Ezequiel Barco missed a significant amount of time, Pity Martinez didn’t quite acclimate until late in the season and the attack finally found some verve around the midway point. A bench-side tongue-lashing from Josef Martinez and public comments from Pity, Barco and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez also seemed to inspire – or at least encourage – a change in philosophy. But it did change, and it changed effectively! De Boer should receive as much praise for adaptability as he did criticism at the beginning of the year. Which leads us to…
De Boer probably wishes he kept himself from misadventures in public opinion. Comments, for which he later apologized, referring to Atlanta fans as “spoiled” should probably be avoided from here on out, and his management style clearly irked several key players. The good news is, this is the most fixable issue in the bunch. A year spent in Atlanta becoming a little more comfortable with his team and the media should help all parties involved. Should.
The excitement level and success of the actual soccer is a little more uncertain. People in high-leverage situations have a lot of pressure on them. People and organizations who have pressure on them tend to overcorrect when things don’t go as planned. When the team struggled at the beginning of last year, a common criticism essentially said that De Boer didn’t have the players necessary to execute. In De Boer’s first full offseason, the club appears to have bought into that belief and then some.
Even if it only appears that way and the mass exodus and ingress of players is simply a natural byproduct of MLS roster rules, you will still have Atlanta fans asking questions if this team sputters out of the gate and they can’t find a jersey in their closet that features a player still on the team. There may be sound reasons for parting ways with Darlington Nagbe, Julian Gressel and LGP, but all three were hugely popular among those who regularly pack out Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Either way, a world made in what largely appears to be Frank de Boer’s image is a world where he’ll be the first to blame when things go wrong.
He’s occupying a very strange space here. Everyone would concede that the team improved by the end of last season. Everyone would concede that winning Campeones Cup and U.S. Open Cup trophies is good and not bad. And everyone would concede that this team came extremely close to hosting a second straight MLS Cup. I mean, not to bring this up again, but I’m going to personally be bringing it up again until the end of time:
Still, there’s a weird tension around this team and FdB. The loss of a few fan favorites and the incoming unknowns have created an atmosphere where no one is quite sure what the floor or ceiling is, even if the expectations are still sky-high. It’s something that comes with the territory of Atlanta’s self-perpetuated ambitions, but it’s also something that can be remedied easily by winning. It’s not exactly MLS Cup or bust this year, but it might be MLS Cup or “I don’t know, maybe we need to work on ourselves for a while and make sure we’re in the right headspace for a relationship, ya know?”
To make a targeted reference to a largely southern audience, University of Georgia football coach Kirby Smart said last year that “pressure is really a privilege.” Georgia then went out and lost to South Carolina at home and got blown out by LSU. So, don’t do whatever the MLS version of that is. If Atlanta still wants to consider themselves the standard-bearer for the league's sporting success, do not do that.
That being said, pressure and high expectations are a privilege that comes with the monster the Five Stripes have created. They’ll have to embrace that for this season to be a success in the mind of the fanbase. If it is, De Boer will be able to put himself close to the same stratosphere as Tata Martino. If not...pressure can make things collapse quickly.