By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (May 17, 2019) US Soccer Players - The phrase “grace period” gets plenty of run in modern society. It sees use in the technical application like the grace period for interest on a credit card and in a more metaphorical sense. People get grace periods in all sorts of situations for all sorts of reasons. Only the hardest heart could judge performance without granting someone a bit of time to acclimate.
If Atlanta United head coach Frank de Boer got a grace period when he took over the MLS Cup champions, it wasn’t a long one. De Boer’s task was difficult. His predecessor Tata Martino gave the club a swashbuckling style that thrilled fans as it delivered that MLS Cup.
Following Martino meant taking Atlanta United into the Concacaf Champions League, a competition that has proven impossible to win even for MLS clubs with continuity from one season to the next. The expectations around Atlanta didn’t jibe with the reality of de Boer A) getting familiar with the players at his disposal, B) installing his system during a truncated preseason, and C) learning the slippery ropes of Concacaf on the fly.
None of that stopped the knives from coming out when Atlanta exited the Champions League at the same time that their MLS campaign got off to a rough start. A sputtering attack led to a winless March, with just two goals scored against six conceded. United drew at home against new expansion club FC Cincinnati, the kind of result that stands out like a scarlet letter.
Atlanta was visibly struggling to adapt to de Boer’s more methodical possession-based style of play. The Five Stripes dominated possession in most of its matches but showed only a fraction of the danger that earned them 70 points in 34 matches in 2018. The soccer was dreary and United was in last place. It seemed only natural that de Boer’s fitness for the job would be up for question.
It’s not as though de Boer’s recent resume didn’t make asking if he could succeed in Atlanta understandable. While failures in Milan with Internazionale and London with Crystal Palace were necessary to make him available and attainable, for some they quickly turned into evidence. Any grace period de Boer had holding off calls for his removal dissolved in the acidic takes following the slow start to the season. Then things changed.
Since the end of March, Atlanta is 6-1-0. The club has shutouts in its last five matches, all wins. That alone should be enough to quiet any voices that claim de Boer can’t get the job done in Atlanta. This United team may not look like Martino’s United team, but the results speak for themselves. Atlanta has climbed to 4th-place in the Eastern Conference and already look like a title threat on the back of de Boer’s system.
A record run of clean sheets isn’t as exciting as wins by multiple goals every time out. Still, it reminds us that in Major League Soccer, rushing to judgment is inadvisable. The reasons why de Boer wasn’t given more to adapt to the league and for his approach to take root in a group of players who were themselves adapting are a function of Atlanta, a changing culture in MLS, and de Boer’s reaction to early criticism.
The last element in that trio refers to de Boer’s comments following the draw with Cincinnati on March 10. A small number of fans ut enough to be heard booed at the final whistle. Their frustration was with Atlanta’s massive possession advantage (67%) leading to just a paucity of chances.
“[The fans] were a little bit spoiled with the results last season,” De Boer said after the draw. “Everybody has expectations, and that’s also normal.”
It was the word “spoiled” that caught everyone’s attention and riled up the fan base. De Boer implied that expectations from Atlanta’s visibly large fan base were out of step with reality. It wasn't de Boer that was in the wrong with a team that couldn’t beat an expansion side at home. It was the fans for demanding too much. That didn't play well.
Atlanta's fans weren't responsible for the level of expectation, they only embraced it. The leadership at Atlanta United set the high bar with grand pronouncements about ambition coming out of the championship season.
Never mind that carrying over the predominance of the team on the field, especially in light of another massive change via the sale of Miguel Almiron, was a tall order regardless of the coach. Hiring de Boer checked several boxes for a club looking to establish a dynasty in MLS and extend its reach around the world. It didn’t match with the prevailing style entrenched under Martino.
Five straight wins, five straight shutouts. It’s a record, but does it mean everything is right again with the champs? Four of the wins came against teams below the playoff line in their respective conferences, starting with a 1-0 victory over last-place Colorado on April 27. Only a 2-0 win against Toronto on May 8 stands out as impressive considering the quality of the opponent and the nature of the victory.
Modern soccer teams, even in parity-rich MLS, thrive through a combination of the system they play and the deployment of players within that system. If the two things mismatch, if the skillsets of the players don’t line up with the plan laid out by the coach, winning becomes difficult. Pure talent can overcome in certain circumstances, but the degree of difficulty rises dramatically.
De Boer tried something. It didn’t really work. He adjusted, moving an extra body into midfield. The team improved. That’s what good coaches do. All that’s left for those watching is to decide if the amount of time it took for de Boer to change his approach opens him up to criticism.
The underlying numbers on Atlanta say that the club is actually underperforming in the results relative to the quality of the team’s play. That’s a good thing. It means that there’s still plenty of improvement possible. The goals will likely come because there are quality players in the lineup who are now better set up to be successful.
De Boer did get much of a grace period if he got one at all. Fans in Atlanta could not abide by a step back, being accustomed to the fun, winning team they watched play under Martino over two seasons. They certainly couldn’t abide by their team dropping to the foot of the table, new coach or not.
De Boer didn’t get a grace period, but perhaps he didn’t need one. Instead, he did what was needed to turn his team into a winner. MLS provided a grace period of its own, even in a place like Atlanta. The season is long, the playoff spots plentiful and climbing the standings only really requires a brief burst of good form.
It was never as bad at it seemed. De Boer had time because Atlanta’s leadership invested in him and had no intention of changing things. It’s only fair to give him his due. For now.
More From Jason Davis:
- Cincinnati's technical side, Zardes a DP in Columbus
- The importance of the second-leg
- FC Cincinnati also makes a coaching change
- The Portland Timbers will end up at home
Photo by Perry McIntyre - ISIPhotos.com