(Atlanta United Website)
It's been awhile for me on this site. With a busy college semester and the holidays over with, I'm back! 2021 was a very interesting season for Atlanta United. When the club hired manager Gabriel Heinze to take over, I was ecstatic as he was my #1 option after the firing of Frank de Boer. With everything falling apart, no hope remained. Gonzalo Pineda joined the club and transformed the team into the 5th seed of the Eastern Conference. After losing to the eventual MLS Champions in the first round of the playoffs, many questions stand moving into the new year.
1) What are the biggest positional needs as things stand now?
It has been a quiet offseason for the Five Stripes so far. The only official additions are adding Osvaldo Alonso and Dylan Castanheira. After losing huge depth pieces in Alec Kann and Anton Walkes, the club's most necessary positions of need are a backup goalkeeper to Brad Guzan, a backup striker behind Josef Martinez, and depth at center back, right back, and the wings.
2) Will Ezequiel Barco be in Atlanta in 2022?
Although the club denied giving out any new information on the case, Carlos Bocanegra has stated that they have received a lot of interest abroad for Barco. Standing at 22 years of age and his contract expiring at the end of the upcoming season, now is the time to cash in on the $13.50 million transfer fee from Independiente in 2018. Barco was at his best for the club in the back half of the season. His replacement already seems lined up to come here, now it just comes down to more rumors about which league and fee he gets sent off for.
3) Who is his replacement?
While this rumor has been reported on for almost six months now, the transfer destination seems all but done. Velez Sarsfield reported that they sold rising attacking midfielder Thiago Almada to Atlanta United for $16 million, but the receiving club only stated that they have the exclusive option for the transfer. At this point, it seems that Almada coming to MLS is a when, not if situation.
4) Any other concerns with Almada?
His individual play style isn't a concern for Atlanta whatsoever. He's one of the biggest prospects in South America. Almada is a more finished product at this point than when Barco arrived in 2018. The biggest concern is how he will gel with Josef Martinez, Marcelino Moreno, and Luiz Araujo in the attacking third, which those three and Barco could never really put it together consistently in their limited time together. If Almada and Moreno both feel most comfortable playing through the middle, Atlanta will have issues generating creative chances just like they did with Moreno/Barco or Barco/P. Martinez. The stars have to learn how to build off each other instead of clogging the same spaces. The other concern is Almada's off-the-field issues. If you haven't heard about it, I'd encourage you to look it up yourself because I am not knowledgeable enough on it to share my thoughts.
5) Will George Bello be here next season?
Not just Barco, but it seems like the front office prepared themselves for George Bello's departure after 2021. After trading up in the re-entry draft for FC Cincinnati's Andrew Gutman just to loan him to Eastern Conference rivals New York Red Bulls, it felt very odd at the time. The 19 year-old left back has reported interest from Premier League side Watford, who is currently in a relegation battle halfway through the season. I do not believe Bello is ready for weekly matches in England's top division, but this would make a lot of sense for Watford if they have a proper development plan in place. Expect to hear more news on Bello to Europe soon this month.
6) Who will take Bello's minutes in 2022?
Just as I mentioned before, Andrew Gutman was signed for a purpose. The Indiana Hoosier graduate, originally signed by Celtic, has made his way around MLS with solid seasons in Cincinnati and New York. Many Red Bulls fans have shared their desire for his return after being one of their most consistent players last season. If Bello does go, I think Gutman would be a great addition and actually might fit Atlanta better in their probable transition to a 4-man backline. I'm sure Gutman would enjoy finding a long term home at this point.
7) What about Miles Robinson?
AJC reporter Doug Roberson reported that the club fully plans on maintaining Miles Robinson in 2022. The 2nd overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, Robinson has turned into one of the best center backs in the league. He truly deserves to go overseas, but at 24 years old and a crucial World Cup Qualifying schedule for the USMNT ahead of him, it does make a lot of sense why he would want to remain in Atlanta. This is great news for the Five Stripes as long as they aren't holding back his own personal aspirations. His contract expires in two seasons as well, so if he is staying in Atlanta an extension hopefully will be on the table soon.
8) Is Alan Franco heading to Brazil?
From one Alan Franco rumored to joining Sao Paulo on loan to another joining Charlotte FC on loan in a matter of days, it sounds like Atlanta's center back pairing will remain the same next season. Several South American media outlets reported that Sao Paulo presented a loan-to-buy offer for Franco, but Roberson also confirmed from the club that they do not plan to move either of them. Of course if someone comes in with an offer you can't deny, we'll be changing our outlook on this. But for now, the Robinson-Franco pairing has the opportunity to develop into one of the league's bests in 2022.
9) Who will replace Anton Walkes?
Atlanta United lost club original Anton Walkes to the 2021 Expansion Draft from Charlotte. Walkes had an outstanding season on his return to MLS and will truly be missed in terms of salary and leadership. Losing him and Franco Escobar via trade means the center back depth is lacking at this point. So who's next? Homegrown George Campbell seems ready to take the next step in his career and he should be more than fine as the team's third center back option. For Robinson and the national team to Franco and yellow card accumulations, Campbell should see a lot of time next season. Alex De John's contract was also exercised, but The Athletic's Felipe Cardenas reported that the team was after Seattle's Shane O'Neill before he chose to sign with Toronto FC. It's obvious the team wants to add one more name to the center back room before preseason camp opens.
10) Is Castanheira the backup to Guzan next season?
Alec Kann's option wasn't exercised due to the thought that Charlotte would take him in the expansion draft. While losing Walkes in the process, FC Cincinnati also persuaded Kann to leave another contract with Atlanta and become their starting goalkeeper. A luxury they had since the founding of the club, a viable backup behind 37 year old Brad Guzan is crucial. Dylan Castanheira, newly-acquired for Inter Miami CF, has spent the majority of his professional career in the USL. Roberson stated that the club is in contact with Atletico Lanus of Argentina to return young goalkeeper Rocco Rios Novo via loan or transfer. If Rios Novo transfers to the 2nd team or cannot be brought back at all, Atlanta United will have to look in free agency for their backup goalkeeper.
11) Who will compete with Brooks Lennon for minutes at right back?
Like Rios Novo, the club is also in discussions with Aberdeen of the Scottish Premiership to retain right back Ronald Hernandez by either loan or transfer. The 24 year-old Venezuelan would be a great return for depth as he can play on either side as an outside back. If Hernandez cannot return, the club will have to add support for the reliable Brooks Lennon.
12) Is the midfield position finished for the offseason?
The club truly missed an on-the-field MLS veteran as they did in Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz during their early successes. The front office filled this huge need in signing defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso this offseason. The 36 year-old Cuban has won 6 trophies in 13 seasons in Major League Soccer. Alonso was a former teammate of current manager Gonzalo Pineda, which I'm sure was a key reason in negotiating him to accept a veteran minimum supplemental roster spot. Alonso will be huge for the midfield group and locker room this season.
13) What will the midfield rotation be like for Atlanta United in 2022?
The center midfield rotation will include Alonso, Santiago Sosa, Matheus Rossetto, Franco Ibarra, Amar Sejdic, and recovering Emerson Hyndman. Assuming two of this combination will start, the midfield depth is actually one of the deepest in MLS on paper. I'd guess that Sosa and Rossetto start game 1, but Alonso and Ibarra will receive several key minutes throughout the season. Atlanta blew a lot of leads in 2021 due to fatigue in the midfield, so this shouldn't be an excuse anymore. Hyndman will probably take awhile to fully recover but once he's back the spot is his for the taking over Rossetto. Alonso will impact the growth of U22 signees Sosa and Ibarra. Really strong group - get healthy and stay healthy.
(Atlanta United Twitter)
14) Will Jurgen Damm and his $1.5 million cap hit remain?
Removing Jurgen Damm's salary off the books should be one of the front office's primary focuses this offseason. I was always skeptical of this signing and Damm just hasn't turned into the player he was brought in to be. Reports of transferring to Chivas in La Liga were recently shut down. Even on a free transfer, Damm out of Atlanta would open up a lot of roster flexibility to bring in more impactful resources.
15) Will Erik Lopez be in the future plans of the club?
This one is very much an unknown. Erik Lopez's luck in coming to Atlanta has not been the greatest from a position change to 4 different managers in his lone year and a half here. Cesar Luis Merlo reports that the player will go on loan to Mexico or Argentina next season. Lopez's contract runs through 2024. This move would open up both a U22 and international roster slot. This is a crucial season for Atlanta and I'm not sure they have the time to continue experimenting every young prospect. Although he has struggled to see the field early in his time here, I have faith in Erik if he can find a temporary home with opportunities. He's shown some promise in both the Club America game in 2020 and his goal against Nashville.
16) What does the roster flexibility look like?
From my count, Atlanta United currently has 16 of their 20 senior roster slots filled (L. Araujo, E. Barco, J. Damm, A. Franco, B. Guzan, E. Hyndman, F. Ibarra, B. Lennon, E. Lopez, J. Martinez, M. Moreno, J. Mulraney, M. Robinson, M. Rossetto, A. Sejdic, S. Sosa) and all of their supplemental slots filled (O. Alonso, M. Ambrose, G. Bello, G. Campbell, D. Castanheira, M. Chol, J. Conway, A. De John, E. Morales, B. Washington, T. Wolff). All three Designated Players slots, 3 U22 slots, and 8 International slots are filled at the moment. A lot of possibilities focused in previous questions can open up roster flexibility.
17) Are there any free agents out there that would make sense for Atlanta?
If Josef Martinez is healthy, he will be on the field. 2020 and 2021 showed how much Atlanta needs someone to carry their own weight if Josef has to miss time though. My favorite option is a popular one amongst fans, which is Will Bruin from Seattle. Being familiar with Pineda and playing behind a striker like Raul Ruidiaz, Bruin to Atlanta makes a lot of sense. MLS veteran Bradley Wright-Phillips is still around the league as a backup option. Justin Meram coming back to the A would've been a personal favorite match, but he will be returning to Real Salt Lake next season.
18) Who is a free agent after this season?
Based off of Transfermarkt, the known expiring deals ahead for the club are: Ezequiel Barco, Osvaldo Alonso, Emerson Hyndman, Amar Sejdic, and Alex De John. MLS roster details are a pain to figure out honestly.
19) Which homegrown is the next George Bello?
George Campbell has shown that he's ready to step up in his career with more playing time. The 20 year-old homegrown might actually have a better shot than Miles Robinson for a European career at this point. Also keep a lookout for 17-year old academy left back Caleb Wiley. Wiley received a previous call-up for the United States U20 Youth National Team. Expect Gutman to be the bridge between Bello and Wiley if all goes as planned.
20) Who will be the team's Most Valuable Player in 2022?
Atlanta is seen at their best when someone can deflect attention off Josef Martinez in the attack. While Josef Martinez broke the scoring record and was the league MVP in 2018, his running mate Miguel Almiron finished second in voting. Araujo has the best chance to do anything near what Almiron did, he just needs to stay consistent. After his flashy start last summer and a full offseason to adjust to the league, I don't think it's too crazy to see this happen.
21) Who will be the team's Most Improved Player in 2022?
Based off the forecasted rotation, George Campbell has the best chance to skyrocket his career this season. Flashes like subbing on for Alan Franco late on the road in DC to secure 3 points showed great promise (I was there live). Best case scenario includes Pineda not being able to take Campbell off the field like Robinson did in 2019.
22) What should be the expectations for the club heading into the season?
Darren Eales and newly-extended Carlos Bocanegra promised their fans a hungry pursuit of trophies. The club hasn't won, yet even been in the conversation of trophies the past two seasons. The fans have every right to expect one in their three competitions for 2022, but will the roster be good enough to do it?
We shall see how all of these questions play out in the coming months and season. I always remain cautiously optimistic. I'm as ready as all of you are for some January transfer rumors - expect that to start this week.
(Atlanta United Twitter)