Voices: Sam Jones

Why Atlanta United parted ways with Gabriel Heinze

Gabriel Heinze - Atlanta sideline pointing

With 7:00 on the clock at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the crowd chanted for Josef Martinez. At the end of Atlanta United’s 1-0 loss to New England, Atlanta’s eighth straight game without a win, there were boos. Then another chant for Josef Martinez. And that’s how Gabriel Heinze’s 13-game, seven-month, 212-day tenure as manager of Atlanta United thudded to an end.

It’s a strange conclusion to what felt for much of the year like a straightforward story. Atlanta had hope at the beginning of the season that Heinze would be able to take this particular cast and mold them into something resembling the teams of Tata Martino’s Atlanta United. Instead, it became apparent quickly that the cast had too many understudies to produce anything with that same level of verve and style.

No one could blame Heinze for that. So the hope shifted from an immediate return to something bigger and better into hope for a gradual build-up that could signify better things on the horizon. It seemed like that might come hand-in-hand with the current summer transfer window. If the team could improve tactically, continue building on the foundation being set and show a bit of promise, a few moves to benefit the attack could go a long, long way.

But the team flat-lined and injuries piled up. Both were considered a result of, in part, Heinze’s tactics and man management. Injuries happen, though. Atlanta certainly seem to have more injuries than the average team right now, but it can be true that a team can be both overworked and unlucky. Tata Martino never quite had a stretch like this injury-wise despite similar reports of intense training sessions.

What’s less easy to explain away was a commitment to a tactical set up that seemed as unchanging as the results it produced. Atlanta are winless in their last eight games. It would have been nine if it weren’t for a stoppage-time winner against CF Montréal that came from practically nothing. This team simply can’t create chances and hasn’t looked like creating chances all year. Atlanta and their fans had at least hoped to see some improvement on the miserable slog of 0.5 xG games that repeated into infinity during 2020. Instead, they kept coming. And even after yesterday’s 1-0 loss to New England, Heinze stayed committed to the predictable.

“In this moment we are right now, it makes me want to keep working more. I don’t want to leave this path,” Heinze said. “Why? Because I know it. It’s happened before to me. The path was the same and I give it everything I have, all the effort. Let me tell you that this is a good group of players. Possibly, the coach is bad. I truly believe in what I’m doing and I will continue to do the same.”

It’s unclear where staying the course stops being admirable and starts being detrimental. If you’re heading into an iceberg, it’s not brave to keep steering the boat straight toward it out of a misplaced sense of obligation to the path that sent you toward the iceberg. Circumstances change. And even if you believe it will be the best option in the long term, you need proof of concept to justify it. Given Atlanta’s circumstances, there had been no proof of concept.

However, Heinze teams have started slowly before. There were warning signs from his previous stops that this might happen in Atlanta as well. Eventually, those decisions came good. Otherwise, the Argentine wouldn’t have come to Atlanta after his Vélez Sarsfield tenure — bringing with him a major dose of optimism for the fan base — in the first place.

But that optimism evaporated quickly. And with the fan base already growing weary of the future, Heinze, for a moment, did the irreconcilable.

Josef Martinez’s return was supposed to mirror Atlanta’s. As he recovered from an ACL tear and progressed back toward being the player that won the MVP award in 2018 and dragged Atlanta to a near-MLS Cup berth the next year, Atlanta would improve under Heinze as well. And just when it seemed like Martinez had crept back closer than ever to being “Josef,” Heinze announced in a press conference that Josef Martinez had been frozen out of the team.

Reports surfaced the next day that the relationship between Heinze and Martinez had become so frayed that Josef wanted out of Atlanta. There couldn’t be a more cardinal sin in Atlanta than being the cause of Josef Martinez’s exodus from the club he called his “Real Madrid” and “Barcelona.” The fans responded in kind. And the front office surely couldn’t help but notice. If it came down to the new guy on the block running players into injuries and implementing tactics that garnered half a goals worth of chances per game and the player with multiple murals across the city, then the choice would always be obvious. Always.

Interestingly, Heinze, who openly admits to sometimes overwhelming stubbornness, said after Saturday’s loss that he and Josef had worked things out.

“Josef will start tomorrow with the group and we want to see him fit,” Heinze said. “To clarify, I had a conversation with Josef. Everything that somebody like me decides is with Atlanta as my first thought. After that, the rest. I can tell you how I manage myself. Josef will be back and will help us get through this moment.”

It wasn’t enough. This team is desperate to save what it built in the beginning. And those in charge are feeling pressure on all sides to do it quickly. When fan support begins dwindling and then aggravated by a failure to manage the team’s star player, it’s clear they felt they needed to make a move.

We’ll see in time if it’s the right decision. But for now, it’s another chapter in a frustrating string of stories from the last three years. And with the newest manager gone, the star player still recovering, the rest of the team injured and no clear transfer targets on the horizon, it’s not clear if and where Atlanta United are going to find their next savior. Or why things were allowed to get bad enough to need one.