Atlanta United's top decision-makers Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra got an even deeper, intimate view of the goings-on in the locker room at the MLS is Back Tournament.
Eales and Bocanegra were with the team in Orlando and got a front-row view as the team stumbled to three straight 1-0 losses before being sent home. Only a few days passed after the team touched down in Atlanta did the club make a huge decision.
Atlanta and head coach Frank de Boer opted to mutually part ways, a bombshell announcement after just 18 months in charge for the Dutch manager. In a macro sense, it may have been seen as a surprise. De Boer did lead the club to lift the Campeones Cup and U.S. Open Cup in 2019, while they came painfully close to hosting MLS Cup as well. Diving into the details, though, it became clear to Eales and Bocanegra that the team was ready for a change.
Their attack sputtered without the injured Josef Martinez, and had indeed looked shaky for a good portion of 2019 until the star forward went on a record-setting goalscoring streak. Eales has spoke often about the club's desire to play attractive soccer, and it wasn't happening lately. High-priced attackers Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco failed to make an impact at the tournament, while the atmosphere around the team wasn't particularly strong.
"It was about direction of travel," Eales told reporters on a video conference call Thursday. "It was clear from my perspective, the signs were there, it was time to make a change.
"Everything from training through to the feeling at breakfast, (being with the team) gave us an insight as to where we were as a club," he added. "That shows you from a timing perspective, realizing it might be better if we mutually parted ways.”
As Eales went further into the details of the coaching change, it became clear the style of play was a key sticking point.
When Atlanta entered the league in 2017, Tata Martino led a high-energy attack which saw Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron become superstars. They continued that in 2018, though dialed it back a bit in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs en route to winning MLS Cup that season. Almiron departed for Newcastle and Martino left before eventually taking charge of the Mexican national team. Though the results the trophies were mostly there, the team never quite matched the same verve and intensity under de Boer that they displayed under Martino.
“We want to win trophies, but we also want to play a way that’s attacking," Eales said. "That’s difficult. … We want to win games and win trophies in a style that’s Atlanta United. When you watch us, you know you’ll be excited. A team that’s on the front foot. It’s a high bar but it’s the bar we’ve set ourselves.”
Another reason for the change was locker room morale.
A report from The Athletic painted a behind-the-scenes picture of a group that was never fully with de Boer from the outset. This evolved into Josef Martinez reportedly walking off the practice field on more than one occasion and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (who left in January for Tijuana and has since returned to MLS with Inter Miami) and others publicly criticizing the team's play style at the 2019 All-Star Game.
As such, interim head coach Stephen Glass is focused on improving morale, even before changing tactics and style.
“My opening message to the players was my desire to unite the group again," Glass said. "From the outside, I saw a group that looked disjointed. It needed a little bit of direction in the way the club wants to play, that’s the aim and that’s what I told them. We’ve got a great group of players who are capable of a lot more than they’ve given.
“The group, to me, needed a slightly different man-management style," he added. "I feel like that’s what I’ll bring. There’s a freedom needed to be given to the team.”
He believes that approach is starting to bring results after just about a week on the job.
“I’ve been able to watch training, I could see a general enjoyment on players’ faces," Glass said. "They want to work, they want to improve as a group. I’ve seen that already.”