Go back and watch Atlanta United’s 2018 MLS Cup parade. You’ll see two banners out in front of the team bus. The first is a famous, infamous, possibly a smidge sacrilegious, possibly also incredible picture of Josef Martinez’s face imposed on a hundreds-year-old painting of Jesus of Nazareth. The second is a bit more simple. Red background, gold letters. “Atlanta Influences Everything”.
Down here that’s nothing more than a statement of fact. And that I’m even able to write a sentence like that with confidence should tell you a bit about the collective headspace of the city. It’s a statement of fact originally articulated by four local creatives who have seen the phrase become an unofficial slogan inescapably plastered on T-shirts and more around the inside of The Perimeter. “The South got something to say” for a generation of the city more assured than ever of its cultural sway in the state, the region, the country and the world.
At its core, it’s an acknowledgment of Atlanta’s incredible creative community. But it carries an ethos that’s resonated with the rest of the city. From politics, to business, to sports, to everyday life. “We’re here. And if you’re dismissive in any way of our relevance, we’re happy to educate you.”
In 2017, Atlanta United’s instant success created a feedback loop. The city saw a winner making waves and more and more people dove in which created even more waves. The acclaim as a league-changing team poured in. And Atlanta loves an influencer.
Then the team bottomed out. A coaching hire that didn’t fit the culture of the club and most importantly the locker room got swirled in with a handful of roster moves that only highlighted the growing list of flaws. Even in 2019, a year where Atlanta won the U.S. Open Cup and came incredibly close to hosting a second-straight MLS Cup, the outright joy of experiencing the team never quite appeared except for maybe a Campeones Cup win over Club America.
So Darren Eales and company began a “relaunch”, comparing this offseason to the team's first season in 2017. At that point, that relaunch didn’t have much of a foundation to jump off of. Just no manager and a lot of roster moves to make. But now they’ve begun to follow through. And after clearing away the rubble from this year, they’ve started building again on the foundation they created those first two seasons.
That means that Gabriel Heinze’s appointment as Atlanta United’s newest head coach is a step backward that happens to be a step in the right direction. And to understand why, you have to understand Marcelo Bielsa.
Or at least get an idea of him. Who knows if anyone will ever really understand him. He’s that human anomaly with one of those perfect coaching personalities. You know. A weirdo.
A weirdo who claims to watch 14 hours of soccer a day. A weirdo who holds famously intense training sessions. A weirdo who just won a pretty routine Bielsa game earlier this week against Newcastle, 5-2. And a weirdo with an expansive coaching tree that has roots and stems in nearly every major soccer country. In soccer, Bielsa influences everything.
He’s already made his mark on Atlanta United before. Tata Martino descended on the South from the school of Bielsa. And his tactics — high energy, possession-based and pressing positive — were a major part of the club’s success in the standings and as an entertainment product. However, Martino wasn’t doing a Bielsa cover. More like a stellar job of sampling. Tata has never wanted to be a mad genius, just the most effective guy in the room. That meant a bit more pragmatism on the field and the same fervent intensity in training.
Shortly after Bielsa arrived in Leeds, Gabriel Heinze spoke about him.— Juani Jimena (@JimenaJuani) April 13, 2020
He is not usually the kindest man with the press, but look at his face when he talks about Bielsa. 😍
I think he will be one of the best in the future.
Ps: Video credits to @pizarrabielsa #Bielsa #lufc pic.twitter.com/2Cn6P8b3Cm
Now comes Heinze, another Bielsa disciple somewhere in between Bielsa and Martino on the tactical spectrum with a relatively hard lean towards the chaotic. Atlanta leaned into the more pragmatic side of Tata with the Frank de Boer signing and now they’re swerving back to the team’s id. You have to wonder if they’d chosen this route in the first place what kind of stratosphere they might have reached instead of a bureaucratic playing style dragging them back to and beyond the surface of the Earth.
But we’re not on that timeline. So Heinze enters as Atlanta hit a relaunch phase instead of a hyperspeed phase. They’ll have to rebuild key parts of the roster in his image. One comfortable playing out the back and circulating the ball through a back three of two wide center backs and a retreating number six. One with the ability to make the numerical advantages created by his tactical philosophy actually matter when they try to move the ball forward. One with the fitness and speed to effectively press and man-mark when asked. One that, well, looks a helluva lot like 2017.
Apparently he’s already begun to try and sort this out. According to The Athletic’s Felipe Cardenas, Heinze is pushing for Atlanta to bring in Boca Juniors midfielder Agustín Almendra. And you can imagine that this is just the beginning of a roster overhaul. Heinze has almost certainly followed in Bielsa’s obsessive footsteps and looked at the team and the league as a whole extensively. Tata did.
All this, should, in theory, lead to Atlanta United winning soccer games again. It should also lead to a team that wins with the verve and liveliness and effervescence and I don’t know why I’m hiding this behind a bunch of adjectives, look, they just might actually not be freaking boring again. That’s it. That’s the whole crux of this. Don’t be boring.
Caring is interesting. Intensity is interesting. Flair is interesting. Heinze is going to try and bring all of that back to a city that craves it. A city that wants it’s team to be so successful on its own terms that the team is hated everywhere else. The guy that Alex Ferguson once said would “kick his own granny” to win is a hire that is Atlanta as all hell.
Atlanta influences everything. It wants its soccer team to do the same. In every game, in the league and anywhere else it can find to show off that it owns a culture that matters. Heinze’s job will be to bring Atlanta United back to the beginning and then beyond. He seems to be the guy to do it.
Atlanta United almost feels like itself again.