Eventually, their freshman inexperience caught up to them. It only took until October for Atlanta United’s first year growing pains to truly show.
ATLANTA – As the international break blues come fully into effect, it’s time to begin dissecting some of the ole’ Five Stripes’ areas that need improvement. Namely, the ones that held them back the most in key moments this season and ultimately saw them get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.
After covering almost every home match for United, a few patterns stick out in my mind. The old cliche’ defense wins championships has a lot of backing behind it. In the big games, it’s ultimately what makes or breaks you, especially in a league like MLS which is built firmly on parity. But as the season came to a close, particularly in the month of September when the club played 8 games in three weeks, injuries began to pile up.
Head Coach Gerardo Martino managed to reinvent his defense by deploying midfielder Chris McCann into a roving left sided player, who roamed far up into attacks and tracked back into his defensive posture. He also dropped Jeff Larentowicz into the centerback position when either one of Michael Parkhurst or Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez were not eligible to go. But these makeshift defenses ended up buckling against Minnesota United and Orlando City, dropping points in key matches that did end up keeping them out of a seeded playoff spot.
More so, Greg Garza’s injury woes (which forced McCann to cover him) were a massive loss given how well the Tijuana-owned fullback had played most of the season. Tottenham owned Anton Walkes also was thrust into a major role after Tyrone Mears fell out of favor. All in all, the defense wasn’t 100% there. Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez and Brad Guzan were massive successes but they could only do so much. With Walkes, Garza, Mears and even Bobby Boswell likely having played their final minutes with Atlanta, replacements will need to be brought in.
There’s lots of talk of bringing in versatile defender Franco Escobar from Martino’s old club in Argentina, Newells Old Boys. The 22-year old is a centerback by trade but can be deployed to either flank. Given the Tata-connection, this move wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. Escobar would be one of the pieces needed in the puzzle given how things transpired last season, and hey, another LGP wouldn’t be too bad either.
‘But the silly season is still young!’
Yes – it is. We’re only in November and the MLS transfer window doesn’t open up for another couple of months. There are going to be many departures between now and then, meaning the club will be able to address needs one by one when the time comes.
Another major area of concern is the lack of overall depth, especially in the midfield. If Carlos Carmona would have been injured this season, the club would’ve sank to the bottom. The Chilean was immense all season long and looked as if he could still be playing in Europe. Criminally under-rated, under-covered by the press, Carmona was the destroyer in the midfield who allowed Miguel Almiron to play so freely. With Almiron being able to roam forward, Josef Martinez could be unleashed. With Martinez unleashed, this allowed the wingers to be more audacious – do you see the image I’m painting?
Do you also see how ridiculously thin the midfield is? Julian Gressel didn’t possess the defensive prowess (and I don’t think he was put in a role to purposely) that Carmona has. Jeff Larentowicz shouldn’t be expected to play 34 games next season, and Kevin Kratz isn’t a deep lying midfielder by trade. But on the other side of the spectrum, Atlanta suffered significantly without Almiron and Martinez, both who did have injury spells at one point or another.
Perhaps I’m putting the cart before the horse, after all, a year ago the club only had a handful of players. This team was built (properly) from the ground up. I’m not criticizing the front office’s work by any means, what I’m saying is, there are clear areas that need to be addressed if Atlanta is expected to take on Toronto, the New Yorks or Chicago next season.
Life after Miggy
There will be a day, probably sooner rather than later, where Miguel Almiron departs the club for a record MLS transfer fee. There is well reported interest from Italy and England in the Paraguayan, and big money will be offered most likely in January. If Atlanta is going to sell, then early January would be the time. Although there is a salary cap and only so much a club can spend, it would free open a DP slot and that could allow Darren Eales and co. to find the right replacement.
The #10 was immense this season and is a strong candidate for the MLS MVP award. Replacing him won’t be easy, not only because of his value on the pitch, but also for the fans who’ve grown so strongly onto him. Almiron is the face of soccer in Atlanta, and there really isn’t a pricetag on that. It begs the question, what would have been Chipper Jones’ transfer value for the Atlanta Braves?
Alright, ridiculous comparison, but you get the idea.
Atlanta is going to make a flurry of moves this offseason. As of right now, I’ve got at least eight players who are 90% or more likely to not return for next season, with several others questionable. Building on, and expanding off of last year’s work is going to be crucial. But with Tata Martino entering his second (and currently last year) of his contract, there’s a lot of question-marks around the long-term strategy of the club. It would be difficult to build a team around a manager who may leave in a year’s time.
Realistically, locking Tata down for another couple of years may be the smartest thing to do early on this offseason.
The futures of Greg Garza, Yamil Asad, Kenwyne Jones, Bobby Boswell, Mark Bloom, Zach Loyd, Tyrone Mears and of course Miguel Almiron will need to be solidified. The foundation for building a dynasty is there, now let’s see how they do it.