Things look pretty rough for Atlanta United lately, at least by their own lofty standards. They’re 3W-6L-2D this season, mutually agreed to part company with head coach Frank de Boer after a grisly outing at the MLS is Back Tournament and last weekend got humbled 4-2 by expansion neighbors Nashville SC via what interim boss Stephen Glass called “probably one of the worst performances the club has seen.”
Josef Martinez is still hurt, and now so is Jurgen Damm. Miguel Almiron and Tito Villalba are still gone. Pity Martinez is off to Saudi Arabia, departing as a high-end talent at ATLUTD’s disposal who never quite met expectations. They’re still waiting on Ezequiel Barco to sustain the quicksilver dynamism that made him such a hotly-hyped teenager back at Independiente, a process that’s shifted from “mid-range goal” to “urgent necessity." The whole team seems strangely subdued at times.
It’s all added up to a retreat from the commanding heights the Five Stripes faithful grew accustomed to over their first three years in MLS, and some crowing from other fanbases who haven’t quite had it as good. Franco Escobar even issued a heartfelt call this Thursday for their supporters to stick with them.
If in bad times you leave, in good times we don't need you ✌🏻⭐️— FrancoEscobar36 (@francoeescobar) September 13, 2020
Be careful about poking that bear, though.
“I see people saying that the club is struggling, the team is struggling, the confidence is low. I work with this group of players every day and there's a real belief that it's going to turn, that it’s going to change,” the straight-shooting Scotsman told reporters on Thursday afternoon.
“I see other players at other clubs telling us that the club is struggling. I see media people telling us the club is struggling. We’re sitting at 10th in the [Eastern Conference standings]. We're in a playoff spot. We've not been great, but there's not any lack of belief within the group that we can get to where we need to be this season.”
I don’t envy the task in front of Glass, who’s been brought up from Atlanta United 2 (USL Championship) to steady the ship on what's likely a temporary basis. He has to underline his group’s potential and their current inability to fulfill it, yet do so in a way that doesn't alienate the players or further crush an already-fragile morale. He must, in real time, reconcile the hair-on-fire aggression of Tata Martino’s Atlanta with what turned out to be a much cagier tactical approach from De Boer, and restore the ruthlessness that once defined them.
Armchair Analyst: Atlanta's passive & disorganized midfield and defense was just what the doctor ordered for Nashville's previously ice-cold attack.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) September 13, 2020
A really good performance form the newcomers w/ old man Dax in the middle of it pic.twitter.com/Mj6Wh8cL47
“We're aiming to get a balance of that at the moment; we're not kidding ourselves that we are already there yet,” Glass said on Thursday. “But I think the perception, again, from high level, is that we're miles away from where we need to be. We’re not.
“People want to talk about Atlanta at this time of the season and hopefully they're still talking about us late in the year. That's the aim for this group, and that's the work and determination that’s within the group.”
If losing a road game by two goals in a hectic stretch of this strange season is the all-time low for the Five Stripes, it only underlines what a charmed life they've led to this point.
Fueled by the vision and investment of owner Arthur Blank, Atlanta built a club culture quicker than most expansion sides, embracing a flashy identity and setting clear expectations both internally and outwardly. ATLUTD would be a so-called “big club” in every way, and their actions have by and large reflected that, most explicitly by splitting with De Boer even during 2020’s unprecedented upheaval.
Their swagger seems to have been sapped by Josef's injury, as well as some debatable offseason roster moves. There's then their diminishing home-field advantage at Mercedes-Benz Stadium by the absence of fans under COVID-19 protocols, plus the overall stress and strain of life in a pandemic.
Rain or shine. We're out here. pic.twitter.com/oaZAH4og5p— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) September 17, 2020
But it’s not dead yet.
“These are young guys that are getting put through a lot of different demands than any group of footballers ever have been,” noted Glass. “Everything that's going on, it's not normal for them to have a coaching change, and not be able to go out and see other people out with the training ground [due to social distancing]. But I think in terms of the mentality of a team and a group of footballers in here, I think that you're seeing a group that will fight, a group that is willing to push, a group that’s not accepting of the defeats.
“Yes, we were poor on Saturday. But I think there was still the look of a group that is not accepting that it's OK to get beat when you play for Atlanta United. And I think that will take us a long way.”