Can Atlanta Turn It Around?

In the history of
the MLS, few teams have made such an immediate impact as Atlanta United, who
were formed in 2015 and joined the competition in 2017.

Drawing on one of the most fanatical and loyal fan bases in the country, United made a big impression in their debut season and then stepped up considerably by claiming the MLS Cup last year under the guidance of Gerardo Martino, with the astonishingly prolific Josef Martinez rattling in goal after goal. It was a remarkable success story.

Their achievements
last year inevitably led to the Five Stripes being rated as one of the hot favorites
on the NJ Online
to contest for glory in 2019. But as MLS has become more
competitive, it has become ever harder for teams to defend their title, and so far
this season, Atlanta have struggled to match last season’s heroics.

A slow start

On the face of it,
Atlanta had every chance of picking up where they left off. Martino had been
replaced by a rising star of management, the well-respected former Dutch
international, Frank de Boer, and had kept largely the same group of players,
with Gonzalo Martinez coming in and the sale of Miguel Almiron to Newcastle
United the only significant departure.

But despite these
promising foundations, they made a poor start,
picking up just two points from their opening four games, and exiting the
CONCACAF Champions League at the quarter-final stage. They began to hit their
stride during April, winning six out of seven games, but their progress was
slowed by back-to-back defeats on the road against New York Red Bulls and Real
Salt Lake, leaving them fourth in the Eastern Conference, although only two
points behind the leaders.

The main reason
behind their slow start appears to have been a lack of dynamism up front. In
the absence of Almiron, they lacked someone to make driving runs into the
opposition half and a player adept at making the vital pass to unlock a defense.
Atlanta have enjoyed plenty of possession in their opponents’ half, they just
haven’t been able to make it count.

A brighter future

Much of the slow
start can be explained by the arrival of a new manager, with a distinct way of
doing things, and an early-season schedule disrupted by the Champions League.
At Crystal Palace, his last managerial position, de Boer lasted just ten weeks
as the players were unable or unwilling to adapt to his methods. There has been
none of that opposition from the Atlanta squad, and their run of wins suggest
things are starting to come together.

It will still take
time for de Boer’s more cautious style to be fully implemented, and it may be a
case of the squad having to take a step or two backwards before they can move
forwards. With plenty of time left in the regular season and Atlanta in touch
with the leading teams in the East, there is every reason to believe they will
once again be in MLS Cup contention come the fall.

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