MLS

Atlanta United FC: Are these the Five Stripes we’re looking for?

Atlanta United FC have been a playoff fixture since joining MLS in 2017, but after a year of roster turnover, who are these guys and what have you done with my Five Stripes, Frank de Boer?

They said soccer wasn’t going to work in the south, especially in a perceived lukewarm professional sports market like Atlanta. Though championship success has largely evaded the southeastern metropolis in the four major North American sports, the city has quickly become a soccer town thanks to the triumphant success of Atlanta United FC in Major League Soccer.

Since their inaugural season of 2017, Atlanta United have qualified for the MLS Cup Playoffs all three years of their existence. After losing at home in a penalty shootout in the first round their first season, the Five Stripes went on to do the unthinkable by Atlanta professional sports standards and win the whole damn thing a year later. In their second year ever, Atlanta United were MLS Cup Champions!

Players from those first two seasons became legends in the Greater Atlanta area. Miguel Almiron was the team’s best offensive playmaker and best pure talent. Julian Gressel was everyone’s favorite draft pick with a cross to die for. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was the on-field instigator and defensive tone-setter. Michael Parkhurst was the fearless leader everyone rallied behind.

There were other players Atlanta gravitated to as well. Yamil Asad became a legend when he scored the first goal in franchise history. Greg Garza and Darlington Nagbe helped provide Atlanta with a U.S. men’s national team presence. Hector “Tito” Villalba gave the Five Stripes big minutes off the bench and scored the prettiest goal in franchise history against Orlando City SC.

And then, there was manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino…

Martino was the soccer equivalent of Bobby Cox in Atlanta. His players loved him. He went to war for his guys and vice versa. Unafraid of getting a little too fired up, he coached with passion and always had his team in position to outscore anybody.

But after two great years, he left for El Tri.

Former Ajax coach Frank de Boer became his successor and things, pretty quickly, started to change. Things like, sadly, all the above players.

Of the 18 players on Martino’s gameday roster for MLS Cup 2018, only eight remain – five of starting XI and three off the bench.

Who in the hell are these guys and what have you done to my Five Stripes, Frank?

Okay, okay, okay. Let’s just chill out for one second. This isn’t a exactly a Florida Marlins fire sale. The Dutch manager has made a sweeping imprint on the squad, but Atlanta still have plenty of incredible players scattered all across the pitch. The cupboard isn’t bare and Orlando still isn’t beating this team.

“Mr. Clean Sheet” Brad Guzan is still in goal. Miles Robinson is still the best young defender in MLS. Ezequiel Barco and Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez haven’t lived up to their price tags, but are immense talents and keep it interesting  in the offensive attack.

Jeff Larentowicz is one of the savvy veterans the 17s gravitate towards. Eric Remedi and Emerson Hyndman are quality players playing quality minutes in the middle of the pitch. Most importantly, all hail The King that is Josef Martinez! Build him a statue now!

Was it sad when Josef had to celebrate without one half of his Dragon Ball Z Fusion partner last season as Almiron made the (expected) jump to the Premier League? Yes.

https://twitter.com/GAFollowers/status/1101331983421108224

Was it sad to see fan-favorite Gressel, the man who came to be known as Gresselmania, traded out of town for contract concerns, downshifting from Atlanta United’s Benz to D.C. United’s Audi Field? You bet!

But no, it’s not all bad down in Uncle Arthur’s spaceship. Them Five Stripes can still be hell, don’t they?!

Atlanta United FC won the Campeones Cup and the U.S. Open Cup last year in de Boer’s first season leading the club. The Five Stripes have already started their 2020 campaign by moving past FC Montagua in the Round of 16 of the CONCACAF Champions League. It’s still good to be United.

However, what are reasonable expectations for the most valuable team in MLS in 2020? Will taking home seemingly every trophy up for grabs still be a thing? What does this team look like and what will it become in de Boer’s second season leading Atlanta? Maybe we pump the brakes a tad on expectations, but despite all the changes, by no means should we expect a full-scale rebuild. The front office and ownership – not to mention the fans – won’t allow it.

Upstairs, Atlanta knows exactly what it’s doing with Darren Eales as general manager and Carlos Bocanegra as technical director. Along with owner Arthur Blank, Atlanta United should remain one of the premier clubs of MLS for a very long time. As long as this trio is unified and de Boer doesn’t lose a grip on his revamped squad, this club will contend for every trophy they are competing for. If not, de Boer will start feeling that gracious southern hospitality turn on him.

Since Atlanta didn’t repeat as MLS Cup Champions in 2019, they can’t repeat in the Campeones Cup. Repeating in the U.S. Open Cup will be hard, but it’s definitely possible. The team has to get into rhythm in that tournament for it to happen, which is always the case for whichever club wins it. As for MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield, Atlanta won’t be the favorite, but will still be in the mix.

Ultimately, Atlanta United should be able to finish above the line in the Eastern Conference for the fourth year in a row. On soccer culture alone, this club should be able to advance at least one round in the MLS Cup Playoffs in 2020 if it qualifies. Anything beyond that would be icing on the cake. These may not be the Five Stripes we’re looking for, but this club will be just fine.

This year will look different on the pitch in Atlanta, but that doesn’t mean it is a bad thing.