By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 23, 2020) US Soccer Players – If nothing else, fans in Atlanta can feel like they’re back to their old selves. That’s what the hiring of Gabriel Heinze as the club’s new coach does for a fan base that quickly embraced a specific style of soccer. Heinze’s arrival returns Atlanta United to something much closer to the team’s earliest days when Atlanta made the playoffs and stylishly won a title under Gerardo “Tata” Martino.
How quickly Heinze can return Atlanta to the playing elite of MLS depends mostly on the roster he takes into 2021. What the former Velez Sarsfield boss brings to the United States in terms of approach on the field is just one part of the equation. General manager Carlos Bocanegra and team president Darren Eales have to outfit the player pool with the type of contributors that can make Heinze’s system work.
It’s Heinze’s system that is going to feel most familiar to the Atlanta faithful, with the bonus that it could be even more aggressive and energetic than Martino’s approach. Both Martino and Heinze represent branches off of the Marcelo Bielsa coaching tree, though Heinze skews much closer to Bielsa’s ultra-intense high-pressing than does Martino.
All three are committed to playing out of the back when in possession, a trait that puts extra stress on the center backs. It’s not good enough to be a good defender. Whoever lines up in the back for Atlanta will also need to be good with the ball at his feet and calm under pressure. That might sound like the general job description for a defender, but we’re talking about a lot of pressure.
Heinze’s style of play is as close to the full-throttle expression of Bielsian soccer that you’ll see, but Heinze won’t be the only one using high pressure to force turnovers and create chances. His success in Atlanta won’t be, can’t be, an expression of his soccer philosophy alone.
Out West, there’s already an example of what high-pressure soccer can accomplish and where it falls short without ample investment in players. Matias Almeyda’s tenure as coach of the San Jose Earthquakes has been equal parts thrills and disappointment. For all the advancement they’ve made, Almeyda’s version of San Jose runs into the limits of their talent.
Almeyda’s team never fails to entertain. Unfortunately for Quakes fans, that occasionally means entertaining in the negative. San Jose shipped goals by the bucketload at various points over the last few seasons, leading to a handful of lopsided defeats. When it clicks, the San Jose approach makes the team better than the sum of its parts. When it doesn’t, Almeyda’s team hardly looks like it belongs in MLS.
The most glaring trait of the Quakes under Almeyda is the narrow margin for error. Playing as they do, with a high-pressure system that keeps defenders close to their marks, errors can quickly lead to easy chances for the opponent.
Bielsa himself is dealing with the tenuous balance between success and failure even now. Leeds United’s 6-2 loss to Manchester United on the weekend drew a straight line between his approach and that result. Biesla, ever the believer, refused to concede that his ideas about the game and how Leeds executes them need to change.
Correlation isn’t causation, but the defensive records of pressing clubs speak to potential problems for Heinze in Atlanta. Without the strict discipline needed to prevent the open space that leads to easy chances, teams playing the high-pressure style tend to give up lots of goals.
San Jose conceded 51 goals in 2020, worst in MLS. On average, the Quakes gave up 2.2 goals-per-game. So far in the 2020-21 Premier League season, newly promoted Leeds has conceded 30 goals in 14 matches, also the worst in their league.
In both cases, strong attacking play facilitated by winning the ball in positive areas of the field allowed Almeyda and Bielsa to make up for defensive deficiencies. Well, at least to a point. San Jose finished 8th in the Western Conference and sneaked into the MLS Cup playoffs before dramatically losing to Sporting Kansas City. Leeds sits 14th in the Premier League table as the festive period begins, giving the club a reasonable chance of achieving its most important goal, avoiding relegation.
Merely making the playoffs as Almeyda did, or maintaining a mid-table position as Bielsa is doing, won’t be good enough for Heinze in Atlanta. Suffering through a losing season in 2020 won’t lessen the pressure for the leadership in Atlanta to deliver a winner. That pressure that will come down on Bocanegra, Eales, and Heinze. Martino set a bar that the club is finding difficult to meet. Whatever pedigree Heinze brings, and however bright his rising star as a coach might be, simply playing fun soccer won’t be enough.
Heinze’s resume is strong enough to earn the chance to coach United, but his lone trophy is a championship in Argentina’s second division with Argentinos Juniors back in 2017. Coaching with Velez Sarsfield, the best Heinze was able to do was a 3rd-place finish behind Argentina’s two traditional powers, Boca Juniors and River Plate.
There’s no shame in failing to knock off the country’s biggest clubs with all of their inherent advantages. It’s worth saying that finishing 3rd in the overall MLS table would buy Atlanta entry into the MLS Cup playoffs with initial home-field advantage and a chance to play for a championship.
Getting there is just one part of the job for Heinze. If and when he returns Atlanta to the postseason, the challenge will be in navigating the tournament and bringing United another title. Atlanta is not San Jose. United has and will spend money on its roster to give its new head coach a chance to make waves.
For now, worrying about results can wait. The winter signing season is only just underway. Atlanta figures to be heavily involved in the business of the market. The club Heinze takes over now won’t be the club that takes the field in 2021.
United is making it clear that they have a style in mind, and it’s what brought them their early success. In fact, on the available evidence, it appears as though their new head coach might even do Martino one better with his approach.
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- Seattle’s center backs
- Sigi Schmid’s clubs play for a title
Photo by Atlanta United