In MLS, Atlanta United had known nothing but success until 2020.
Atlanta's expansion season was record-breaking, then they went and won MLS Cup in 2018. It speaks volumes to the club's sky-high expectations that 2019 was marred with mild discontent among those around the club in a season that eventually ended with Atlanta winning two trophies (Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, Campeones Cup) and coming within a game of hosting MLS Cup once again.
This season, though, Atlanta fell well short of expectations, both internally and externally.
Now, they're desperate to prove this was just an aberration, a weird blip amid an otherwise wildly successful era. The metaphor of choice for club president Darren Eales was a popular TV show that had one subpar season due to a writers strike before getting right back to standard form.
“I know it’s difficult to just talk now — we’re going to have to walk the walk — but my hope, vision and dream is sitting in 2021 at the right end of the table, and thinking back on the crazy year of 2020 as something that will go into legends, that one season … that was just terrible," Eales told media on a virtual press conference. "That’s what I hope for Atlanta United. And I expect that.”
With the global pandemic and stop-start nature to the year, all teams had major hurdles to overcome. Atlanta struggled with injury on top of that, as superstar striker Josef Martinez played just 69 minutes before tearing his ACL while fellow Designated Player Ezequiel Barco started fewer than half the games due to various injuries. The club also transferred Pity Martinez and had to wait before his de facto replacement Marcelino Moreno was available to make his debut. For much of the season, the club had only one (if any) of their three DPs available.
Still, both Eales and technical director Carlos Bocanegra were quick to accept blame and promise action, not words, in proving this was an anomaly.
“This is something we hold ourselves accountable for and we have to move forward," Bocanegra said. "We have to learn from our mistakes and make things right. ... Top to bottom, it wasn’t good enough."
For now, though, all they have is words. Atlanta's Decision Day loss against Columbus Crew SC sealed their fate below the playoff line, though they will return in December to finish up the Concacaf Champions League. Atlanta currently trail Club America 3-0 after the first leg.
The offseason's first priority is selecting their next head coach.
“Without going into too much detail, our coaching profile is similar to our player profile," Bocanegra said. "We try to attract players who have a certain profile to the club and that’s what we try to do with the coach. We want them to be aligned with the style of play we want to see within our philosophy of the club. I don’t have a grand update on this, we hope to name one soon. I don’t want to put a timetable on that.”
Atlanta haven't been strongly linked to any candidates despite being without a permanent head coach since July 24. Former head coach Frank de Boer has since accepted a job with the Netherlands and has managed them a handful of times, while the New York Red Bulls parted ways with Chris Armas nearly two months later and have already appointed his successor, Gerhard Struber. Bocanegra expects that to happen before New Year's Day.
Throughout the injuries and disappointment in 2020, Atlanta sought to salvage the season but didn't recklessly mortgage the future to do so. Both Bocanegra and Eales pointed to the offseason flexibility the club will lean on for further acquisitions.
“We set ourselves up to be able to do some stuff in 2021, we’re looking forward to doing that and getting this club back to where it belongs, on top of the table," Bocanegra said.
In looking for positives, Atlanta can point to the encouraging first few appearances for Moreno. The Argentine DP impressed after arriving from Lanus despite not having played a competitive match for seven months and not training with Atlanta before debuting. Talented fullback George Bello took a big step forward in 2020 while the club remain bullish on Barco's ability if he can put together a healthy season. Eales said the plan is for Barco to return next year, despite speculation his future lies in Europe.
Of course, the big addition will be a healthy Josef Martinez. The Venezuelan has 77 goals in 84 MLS appearances, a historic strike-rate. In 2019 his talent covered up a few underlying issues and would elevate any team he's a part of.
With Martinez leading the charge, with a few new recruits and a new head coach, Atlanta can't wait for next year to get started.
“It’s the city’s phrase of resurgence, to rise again," Eales said. "This is a great opportunity to focus on 2021. 2020 has been a strange year for a lot of people. We want this to be quickly forgotten.”