By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 21, 2021) US Soccer Players – Atlanta United was a big club before it ever played a game. By driving so much local interest in professional soccer, they climbed into the upper echelon of franchises in Major League Soccer. The club met that wave of enthusiasm with ambition. Atlanta spent real money on up-and-coming talent and hired a well-known head coach with a resume that included some of the most prestigious soccer teams in the world.
Shooting for the moon from the outset paid off for Atlanta in just its second season when United lifted the MLS Cup trophy on its home field. 70,000 fans jammed into Mercedes-Benz Stadium to witness Atlanta’s new soccer team become champions for what they expected to be the start of a dynasty. All of the ingredients were there.
While no Atlanta United fan would trade that championship run for years of contending but coming up short”, the club has taken dramatic steps back in the two-and-a-half years since. On the field, nobody should be arguing for their elite status. Still, Atlanta United is a big club. With that status comes pressure to live up to lofty standards. That’s not just in terms of on-field success but in terms of the resumes of those running the team.
At the first hurdle it faced following Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s long-expected departure after two years in charge, United made an interesting choice. Former Ajax and Inter Milan boss Frank de Boer had the resume, but his commitment to a specific style ended up an issue at United. In fairness to de Boer, criticism has to balance against him leading the team to the Eastern Conference final in 2019. One game away certainly counts. So did losing his best player in the 2020 opener.
United management showed no hesitation deciding that last summer’s MLS is Back tournament counted. The club’s performance cost de Boer his job. Leadership didn’t hesitate to make a difficult and somewhat costly decision. They called it a “do-over” with interim coach Stephen Glass in charge through the rest of the season.
By hiring Gabriel Heinze in December, Atlanta appeared to be returning to the approach that garnered the team a quick championship. Like Martino, Heinze is an Argentine with a high-intensity style who could presumably connect with the culture already in place in Atlanta. Heinze didn’t have Martino’s resume as a coach. However, his playing career and the respect he earned helping Velez Sarsfield qualify for consecutive Copa Sudamericana tournaments spoke for itself.
We now know that Atlanta got it wrong again with Heinze. The club fired the 43-year old on Sunday, disclosing that “a variety of issues relating to the day-to-day leadership of the team” led to the decision. Later reporting from Doug McIntyre of Fox Sports, Felipe Cardenas of The Athletic, and Doug Roberson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution indicated that Heinze violated the league’s collective bargaining agreement with how he ran the squad.
It might be tempting to give the decision-makers in Atlanta something of a pass. No one had it easy in 2020, after all. That said, by positioning itself as a big club, not just in MLS but abroad, Atlanta United’s leadership created the exact standards that demand they do better. Pandemic or not, choosing the coach to shape Atlanta’s on-field product is the most important task in the front office’s purview. By missing again, Atlanta is suddenly on the verge of entrenching itself as the league’s leading drama club. That would be quite a feat considering recent events in Miami, Toronto, and Cincinnati.
As a big club, Atlanta faces pressure to hire high-profile head coaches. Martino raised the bar for MLS across the board, creating the demand that the club’s next head coach commands similar reverence. So as Atlanta United goes back to the drawing board, it’s worth asking if the club is ready to change tack and consider hiring a lesser-known figure who might be a better fit for a locker room in turmoil.
Can a big club afford to hire a name like DC United’s Hernan Losada? Losada is making progress with a greener, less expensive group of players in Washington after starting his coaching career in Belgium. What about a coach from the ranks of MLS assistants? Longtime seconds like Gonzalo Pineda in Seattle and Ezra Hendrickson in Columbus are regularly mentioned as candidates for open jobs but have yet to get their opportunities.
Whoever takes over in Atlanta will need to revitalize a culture. Atlanta now has several talented young American players among its ranks, including center back Miles Robinson, full back George Bello, and winger Brooks Lennon. Keeping the like of Josef Martinez happy and engaged is also crucial to success for a club that doesn’t figure to back down from its big-spending ambition any time soon.
Martinez spoke to the media on Tuesday, a move the club almost certainly made in an attempt to mollify an upset fanbase who heard rumors that the striker’s break with Heinze could see him leave the club. “The first time I came here I said this is my club, this is my city and I love to be here,” Martinez said. “I want to retire here. I love this club.”
That’s good news for Atlanta United fans and for the next coach. United needs Martinez if it wants to become a contender quickly. It also needs a coach who can navigate the silly world of MLS while also progressing the squad tactically and philosophically.
Atlanta United might be a big club, but it hasn’t yet figured out how to do what big clubs are supposed to: navigate change and keep winning.
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Photo courtesy of Atlanta United