By Chris Smith.
It says a lot about the aims of Atlanta United that a 2019 season which delivered no less than two trophies was seen as something of a transitional campaign.
Heading into the season as defending champions, the Five Stripes initially struggled to adjust to Frank de Boer’s possession-obsessed style of play having forged a reputation as a ruthless counter-attacking outfit under Tata Martino.
Eventually, though, landmark signing Pity Martinez found his feet, Josef Martinez got among the goals and Atlanta looked like a genuine MLS Cup-worthy outfit once again.
— U.S. Open Cup (@opencup) August 28, 2019
While Atlanta crashed out in the Eastern Conference Final against Toronto FC, they did finish the season with a Campeones Cup win over Club America and a first-ever US Open Cup title, beating Minnesota United in the final, during a fruitful August spell.
Naturally, expectations were high among supporters heading into the winter transfer window — and that’s not even considering the fact Atlanta fans rank right up there as the most demanding in MLS.
However, to say the transfer window has tempered expectations would be a massive understatement.
So far, Atlanta have allowed stalwart centre-back Leandro González Pírez depart for Club Tijuana, Hector Villalba — the club’s first-ever Designated Player — has gone to Libertad in his native Paraguay, and Darlington Nagbe completed his return to Columbus Crew.
“The players we’ve lost this transfer window has worried me big time,” says Sam Langford, president of Terminus Legion’s UK Chapter.
“Certainly three that stand out for me are Julian Gressel, Darlington Nagbe and LGP. Those three players had a massive impact on our side, especially in our MLS Cup-winning year.
“I think there’s a huge gap in the team which needs sorting fairly sharpish. We’ve hardly signed anybody, released players, let players go on free transfers and even let our backup striker, Brandon Vazquez, go to an MLS rival. Worrying times ahead this season, I don’t think we can expect a top-eight finish but who knows? Three weeks to go, spend spend spend.”
The most worrying of all the aforementioned sales has to be the decision to allow Julian Gressel to leave for DC United in a deal which could reach $1.1 million.
The ultimate utility man, Gressel has been deployed as a right-back, wing-back, central midfielder and a wide forward during his time in Georgia but most important was his relationship with Josef Martinez — the 26-year-old provided nine assists for Atlanta’s star man in 2019, the most prolific creator to goalscorer partnership in the league last season.
— Julian Gressel (@JulianGressel) January 22, 2020
“Ultimately, trying to find a resolution, and we just were not finding a solution,” Technical director Carlos Bocanegra said of Gressel’s sale recently.
“He’s been a great player. He’s been a fan favourite. That’s not lost on us. It’s something we didn’t take lightly. In this business, you have to do what’s best for the club and the player, as well.”
Gressel’s departure had been on the cards for some time but along with the other three aforementioned names, that’s four key players from Atlanta’s MLS Cup-winning squad gone, while Michael Parkhurst (retired), Florentin Pogba (released), Brandon Vazquez (Expansion Draft) and Justin Meram (released) are among a host of other notable names to leave the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Fernando Meza has been brought in to replace González Pírez and although he stands at just under five inches shorter than his compatriot, he brings a far more cultured approach to the Atlanta backline, along with a similar tenacious approach to his defensive duties.
Meza’s ability on the ball is a clear indication of the rebuild De Boer is attempting, further cementing Atlanta as a side looking to dominate possession rather than one that hurts the opposition in the open field on the break.
However, the rebuild is far from complete. Despite Emerson Hyndman’s loan from Bournemouth being made permanent and Matheus Rossetto arriving from Athletico Paranaense, Nagbe has not been replaced and is one of the most effective press-resistant midfielders in MLS.
Our newest signing.
Bem-vindo, Rossetto 🔊 pic.twitter.com/4bnAQTon0h
— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) February 4, 2020
Edgar Castillo, Jake Mulraney and Brooks Lennon have the potential to provide Atlanta with real thrust from the wing-back areas but whether it’s because of age (young and old), pedigree, or injuries, none are proven replacements for the likes of Gressel.
This complete overhaul of playing personnel is a clear and obvious attempt from De Boer to put his stamp on this team, to completely transition from the Martino era once and for all and make Atalanta United his own.
But in doing so, he’s ripped apart a hugely successful side. This club’s first team. Icons among the Five Stripes’ faithful.
This time next year, we could all be looking back at another MLS Cup-winning Atlanta United, maybe even hailing them as Concacaf Champions League winners.
Regardless, the winter transfer market has made De Boer the most under-pressure manager in MLS heading into 2020 and, unlike last year, there’s no room for transition.