A Pivotal Season.
Can Atlanta United Replicate The Success They Once Enjoyed?
As a follow up to Bryce's 2022 Atlanta United preview, https://www.mlsnowpodcast.com/post/22-questions-for-atlanta-united-heading-into-2022, I wanted to provide my take on what I feel is a pivotal season for the Five Stripes. After a great deal of work by Atlanta's front office to create a strong and imposing identity, the last two years raised a lot of eyebrows with the revolving door of managers and players. All signs point to a fresh restart for the 2022 season with manager Gonzalo Pineda, who came into the club mid-season last year, now having a full preseason with his player pool. Here are a few takes on the team and their prospects for 2022.
Josef Martinez - With his contract up after the 2023 season, and his desire for an extension, this looks to be a very important season for Josef. Questions still remain regarding his surgically repaired knee - can he perform at the level all of us enjoyed when he earned the MLS Golden Boot Award? Does his supporting cast, which once included Miguel Almiron, Julian Gressel, Tito Villalba and Darlington Nagbe, have the ability to pressure in the attack, break down lines, and provide the service Josef once enjoyed? Josef has to be feeling a good bit of pressure - and the goals need to come in bunches if Atlanta United is to enjoy success this year.
Experience - Sans the experienced goalkeeper Brad Guzan, it looks like the starting eleven will be very young. Guzan is a leader, but not being a field player does not allow him to impose his will with the youngsters in front of him. Who steps up to be the on-the-field leader? The club brought in veteran midfielder Ozzie Alonso, who Gonzalo Pineda knew from their days with the Sounders. Sure, Alonso can help with match management and tactical awareness, especially late in games, but can the Five Stripes afford to give him a lot of minutes? Atlanta United misses the leadership of Jeff Larentowicz and Michael Parkhurst - who is the player who can step into that leadership role?
The good news is the back four are very athletic - and the not so good news is that they are very young. Gonzalo Pineda has changed the shape to a back line of four. Alan Franco and Miles Robinson are 25 and 24 respectively, Ronald Hernandez, 24, and newcomer Andrew Gutman, 25. Should Brooks Lennon start in place of Hernandez, he is still only 24. While many pundits felt that goalkeeper Brad Guzan had a rough 2021 season, he actually was fourth in goals expected against, a good barometer for goalkeeper performance. The switch to a back four may shore up Atlanta's defense, and some of their match performance will relate to the help they get from the midfield.
Speaking of midfield, who fills the void that has not been replaced since Miguel Almiron's departure to Newcastle? Can Alonso play a good number of minutes, and is he still able to split lines, break down defenses, and pressure in the attack? Or does Pineda rely on Marcelino Moreno to take on that role? If not Moreno, is it Emerson Hyndman, who is coming off season-ending knee surgery? As a comparison, Moreno's expected goals and expected assists was greater than Hyndman, and as much as 4X higher than Santiago Sosa, Matteus Rossetto, Ozzie Alonso, and Franco Ibarra. So the metrics tell us that Moreno is the center attacking midfielder...but newcomer Thiago Almanda, who took Ezequiel Barco's designated player spot, has expressed his interest in playing in the center behind Josef Martinez. Pineda has options, which is always a positive sign that Atlanta has rebuilt their player pool. We will see what shape and players Pineda employs in ten days when the Five Stripes open up at home against Sporting Kansas City.
Recent acquisition Luis Araujo and newcomer Thiago Almada, who recently joined the club from Velez Sarsfield of the Argentine first division, must play at a very high level for Atlanta to score goals. Almada, similar to Almiron and Barco, has big time expectations. As we have all witnessed, it is not easy for a young player to come into this country and this league and immediately perform well. Araujo, a left-footed player, enjoys playing on the right side where he can cut his run with the ball to the inside - often wreaking havoc on defenses across the league. Let's hope that him playing 'inverted' has the same success Arjen Robben enjoyed.
This club has changed quite a bit since their inaugural 2017 season. Their model of acquiring young players, developing them, and selling them on has for the most part worked out. Some of those departures have not sat well with the 17's, Atlanta's loud and loyal fan base. The front office, in the last year, has brought in some more exciting young players. For everyone's sake, let's hope that they live up to their expectations.
Gary Levitt @gary1123 www.justmytake.net
photo credit: Kyle Hess