Atlanta United’s preseason kicks off in a few days as the team begins its preparation for CCL. What should fans expect in this year’s tournament?
Atlanta United coaches and players will soon convene at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta training ground as preparation for the 2020 season begins. The Five Stripes will be one of five teams representing MLS in this year’s edition of the CONCACAF Champions League. Because of their participation in this year’s tournament, Atlanta will meet sooner than most other MLS clubs to begin training for CCL.
Yet, there is a sense of anxiety (as opposed to excitement) from supporters heading into the start of this year’s preseason. Julian Gressel, one of the most beloved and productive players on the team, may hold out while he awaits a new contract for his contributions over the last three years.
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, a penciled-in starter at center-back for all of Atlanta’s brief existence, is off to Tijuana with only an official transfer announcement remaining. Tito Villalba, another significant fan favorite, is expected to be gone in this January transfer window as well.
Darlington Nagbe, the press-resistant midfielder and key member of all three of the club’s trophies, has already been traded to the Columbus Crew. The team lost center-forward Brandon Vazquez and left-back Mikey Ambrose among the many offseason league drafts, while also declining the contracts of left-winger Justin Meram and left center-back Florentin Pogba. And finally, Michael Parkhurst, the team’s first-ever captain, retired.
Atlanta United will look wildly different in 2020. The Five Stripes have already lost Parkhurst, Pogba, Meram, Ambrose, Vazquez, and Nagbe. They will surely lose Gonzalez Pirez and Villalba and the likelihood of losing Gressel increases every day. That’s nine players, each of whom contributed significantly to Atlanta’s trophy wins across 2018 and 2019.
This is the reality of a salary cap league. The club cannot keep everyone happy and moves must be made to ensure salary cap compliance. And while avid observers of the team and league accept this reality, they will not accept a team that cannot compete for trophies, even as soon as February 18, when the CCL begins.
With these vast offseason changes, Atlanta United is missing roughly a third of their full roster — there are only two true center-backs and one true center-forward and an inherent lack of depth in midfield. Atlanta did permanently sign midfielder Emerson Hyndman, as well as veteran Jeff Larentowicz, but these are the only additions of the offseason so far and they are not exactly groundbreaking ones.
Following their 2018 campaign, Atlanta fans were riding on the high of winning MLS Cup and breaking records along the way. The front office stated its expectations to win the continent’s premier tournament. They gave fans even more reason to be excited.
Yet, despite the expectation of competing for the CCL trophy, fans were reasonable in their broader expectations for the tournament once Atlanta bowed out. The team was training under a new head coach in Frank de Boer, new players joined the team just in time for the first CCL match in Costa Rica and were still settling into a new squad, and Atlanta had to catch up in its fitness to truly compete with the giants from Liga MX.
Between a shift in culture under de Boer, an injection of new players, and the lack of time spent training under a new coaching staff, when Atlanta United bowed out to eventual winners, Monterrey, fans were disappointed, yes, but understanding.
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This year, a majority of the players will be familiar with de Boer with a year now under their belts. This will give fans a tinge of optimism for a run in CCL. Yet, with a lack of player signings and significant losses in the form of departing old ones, fans may want to hold back on their expectations for this year’s tournament. There is certainly a sense of worry among the fanbase due to the club’s lack of signings, but there are other factors as well.
Because of last year’s tournament, fans understand how important preseason training is. Of course, the front office will sign players in time for the club’s first match. There are already rumors surrounding the club with the January transfer window now open. Will those singings happen soon enough for on-field chemistry develop in time for a CCL run? Probably not.
Atlanta United will also face a difficult pathway to the final this year, should they make it that far. In 2019 (with some hindsight), Atlanta’s pathway consisted of just two Liga MX teams. In this year’s bracket, Atlanta has the potential to see up to three Liga MX giants and a possible quarter-final date with Club America, the team Atlanta beat to win the Campeones Cup back in August.
It will be a tall task for Atlanta to win the CCL in 2020. But the club is built on expectations set forth by its front office, coaching staff, and players. And so far, they have done a superb job of reaching those expectations. Yet, with so much uncertainty surrounding the players and with the difficult task of the CCL quickly approaching, fans may need to back off in those personal expectations.