Stejskal: Atlanta United have set the bar high, but offseason options loom

ATLANTA – Atlanta United took the most significant step in their remarkable two-year history on Saturday, winning MLS Cup in front of a record crowd of 73,019 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to set off some cathartic celebrations in a city that’s too often seen its teams fall agonizingly short in finals.

In many ways, the victory came without much hardship. Teams are supposed to suffer before they win trophies. Atlanta have had a few tough nights in their history (the 2017 Knockout Round loss to Columbus and the Decision Day meltdown that cost them the 2018 Supporters’ Shield come to mind), but theirs has mostly been a charmed existence. The title was certainly deserved, it just wasn’t preceded by the kind of pain we typically think championship teams must endure before they win.

If the club doesn’t get things right this winter, however, those difficulties could start to pop up. The Five Stripes are heading into an offseason of significant turnover. Head coach Tata Martino is gone, reportedly to take the Mexico job. It looks like star midfielder Miguel Almiron is also on his way out, with reports linking him to a winter move to Europe. Other roster changes will inevitably follow.

Martino’s exit and Almiron’s potential departure loom large, but they won’t change expectations in Atlanta. Winning MLS Cup or the Supporters’ Shield is now the minimum. Anything less will be a disappointment.

“If you ask the fans, absolutely this is the bar,” defender Jeff Larentowicz said during Saturday’s champagne-soaked celebrations. “The ceiling becomes the floor and you just hope that we kind of jump on and push it up. But look, Tata Martino has done so much. He’s no longer here, and we’ll see how that’s filled. We’ll see if Miguel leaves, how that’s filled. But the ethos of the club is to win, is to be at the top, is to push, is hopefully to push the league, and I think that we’ve done that this year.”

How can Atlanta remain at the top? Their biggest question mark is their search for a new manager. Martino’s departure will leave a massive hole at the club, particularly in player recruitment. By virtue of his impressive standing and big-time reputation, Martino was key in making Atlanta an attractive destination for talented young South Americans like Almiron, 2018 MLS and MLS Cup MVP Josef Martinez, defender Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez and $15 million teenager Ezequiel Barco, among others.

His exit could change that, unless Atlanta, as several sources from around the league told MLSsoccer.com they expect, hire another big-name South American as their replacement. The club have been linked for weeks to 2008 MLS MVP and current Boca Juniors manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Reports emerged on Saturday claiming that the club spoke with former Argentina and Chile manager Jorge Sampaoli about their head coaching job. Barros Schelotto’s star is brighter than Sampaoli’s following his disastrous turn with Argentina at the 2018 World Cup, but either Argentine would fit the profile Atlanta appear to desire.

Determining Almiron’s future is next on Atlanta’s to-do list. He’s recently been linked to Newcastle United and has said on multiple occasions in the past that he wants to eventually head to Europe. With his 25th birthday just two months away, the time for him to move is rapidly approaching. Selling Almiron was the idea from the moment they signed him in December 2016, and club president Darren Eales and VP of soccer operations Carlos Bocanegra have both said that the club will move him for the right price. Sources told MLSsoccer.com in 2017 that Atlanta turned down a $20-25 million bid for him that summer. If a transfer offer comes in a little bit above that range in January, the sources indicated that Atlanta will likely sell.

Atlanta certainly appear prepared in the event Almiron does leave. It’s been reported by multiple outlets that the Five Stripes will buy Argentine midfielder Pity Martinez for €15 million from River Plate if Almiron departs. He’d be a more than worthy replacement.

Almiron looks like he’s on his way out, but it seems like Martinez will remain in Atlanta. The reigning Golden Boot winner told reporters at his MVP award ceremony on Wednesday that he is “going to be [in Atlanta] as long as they want me.” Sources told MLSsoccer.com that they expect the club and the 25-year-old Venezuelan to discuss this winter a raise from the $1.387 million he made in 2018 (number according to the MLS Players Association). If they can agree on a new deal, the sources didn’t anticipate any issues with keeping him in Georgia.

Another serious question for 2019? Barco. Atlanta paid a league-record transfer fee to acquire him in January from Argentine club Independiente, but the 19-year-old underwhelmed in his first year in MLS. He recorded four goals and three assists in 31 games in the regular-season and playoffs, but he started just four of his final 18 appearances after getting suspended for one match in July due to a disciplinary measure. He’s got more than enough talent and is certainly young enough to turn things around in 2019, but there will be pressure on him to be better next year. Atlanta’s spending doesn’t mean that much if their big signings don’t pan out. Almiron and Martinez more than paid for themselves. So far, Barco hasn’t. If the Five Stripes want to keep winning trophies, that will likely have to change.

“You have to hit on our stars like we did,” said captain Michael Parkhurst. “Miguel and Josef are special. You don’t always hit, and the club hit with those guys. We don’t win without those guys, they’re incredible. From front to back, everyone did their job and just because you go out there and spend the money, it doesn’t always lead to success.”

Other pressing items for this winter include the contracts of Parkhurst and Julian Gressel. Atlanta declined Parkhurst’s 2019 contract option on Sunday, though they announced that they’re already negotiating a new deal with the club captain. Keeping him in the fold will be paramount. Gressel still has two years left on his rookie deal, but he’s massively outperformed that contract. The versatile German told MLSsoccer.com earlier this season that “a couple” of foreign clubs had begun looking at him and that playing in Europe, preferably in Germany, is an eventual goal of his. Sources said that he could command a Targeted Allocation Money-level contract if Atlanta are willing to deal. Whether or not they will, remains to be seen.

Over their two years in the league, Atlanta have shown us all just what an MLS team can be. They’re at the pinnacle. Now, with MLS Cup in their trophy case, things will only get more difficult. Tough questions will have to be answered this winter, and a new, bigger target will be on their back all next year. They could start to feel some pain. They could become a dynasty. Either way, a large part of their path will be determined over the next couple of months. 

Series: 

LIVE YOUR COLORS: Download the free MLS app - The official MLS app gets a major update for 2019, making it easier than ever to keep up with your favorite club, check standings, watch videos and much more.