When you flip through the record books years from now, you will come across Frank de Boer's Atlanta United tenure. You will see that he won two trophies in, essentially, 1.5 years — and that he came within a Nick DeLeon golazo of a trip to MLS Cup. It will look, in a lot of ways, like a successful tenure.
But it is a measure of Atlanta's ambition that a couple of trophies and a promising playoff run were not able to get the Dutchman an extended stay with the Five Stripes, and that a humiliating, spiritless, goalless three-and-out performance at the MLS is Back Tournament got him the hook. De Boer and Atlanta mutually agreed to part ways on Friday, just three days after his team had completed their miserable Orlando journey with a limp 1-0 loss to a Columbus Crew SC side largely comprised of reserves.
In case you had any question of how seriously teams were taking the MLS is Back Tournament; in case you were wondering just how important this summer's performance was for coaches as well as players; in case you were skeptical about how much the spotlight mattered... this is your answer. This is the price of failure.
Player buy-in hurts De Boer
The end came quickly, but the groundwork was laid by De Boer himself. The manager frequently clashed with the team's best players, prompting the likes of Josef Martinez and since-departed Leandro Gonzalez Pirez to publicly speak out about their discontent. Josef was such a winner and leader that even as things threatened to spiral out of control last year, he went on one of the all-time great runs we've seen from any attacker in this league, scoring in 17 out of 18 appearances across all competitions and papering over the fissures that had threatened to destroy this team both on and off the field.
Without Josef in 2020, those fissures have been laid bare and become chasms, and De Boer was not able to conjure anything in the way of a tactical plan to bridge them. More damning was that the coach had a hand in the departure of not only Gonzalez Pirez, but All-Star right wingback Julian Gressel — Martinez's most frequent collaborator — as well as Paraguayan international forward Tito Villalba, who he'd relegated to the bench. Darlington Nagbe also left, Eric Remedi has been banished to almost permanent reserve status, and thus far their respective replacements have not been up to the job of replacing any them.
Nor have the big-name imports risen to the occasion. Atlanta didn't hire De Boer just to coach the team; he was hired to turn Ezequiel Barco into the next Miguel Almiron, developing the young Argentine attacker into an eight-figure transfer prospect. That hasn't happened, and the form of former South American Player of the Year Pity Martinez has been even worse. Neither have been anything close to what they were billed as, and while some of that has to fall on them as individuals, soccer is not an individual sport. It is a team sport, and all success (or failure) comes within that context. That is the manager's job in the modern game.
De Boer initiated a teardown in order to create a team that could play in his image. Instead, he sabotaged his own chances at any sort of long-term, sustainable success. And in the process he shifted the Five Stripes from the high-flying, entertaining delight they were under Tata Martino to a grim and unhappy bunch that played tight and flair-free soccer.
Carr: Losing Josef isn't an excuse for Atlanta
Losing soccer + asset depreciation + an unhappy locker room is a very, very tough thing to survive. It's understandable that De Boer didn't.
And now, for the first time as an MLS club, Atlanta are facing something of a crisis. The good news? Josef's injury rehab is reportedly going well and in Barco and Pity, they do potentially have two of the best attacking midfielders in the league. They have good young talent at other spots, and a handful of veterans in defense and goal. They look nothing like the fearsome bunch that blitzed their way to 69 points and an MLS Cup in 2018, but they do have some obvious similarities to the group that won two trophies last year -- or they will, anyway, once Josef's back healthy.
So that is that. Atlanta have shown their ambition throughout their MLS existence, and this is another example of it. Anything less than success is not tolerated.
Whoever their next coach is should see that as a warning, but also as a mandate. The best managers want to guide the clubs with the grandest ambitions, and so this is the project: take the collective in the locker room and get them on the same page again as players and people; play exciting soccer that brings the best out of the big-name players; turn young talents with potential like Barco, Miles Robinson and George Bello into saleable stars.
And win. There are no rebuilding years in Atlanta. The message has been sent.