Atlanta United have announced a series of roster moves in the last week. As these roster announcements are made, the team’s vision becomes clearer.
Atlanta United are experiencing heavy roster turnover as the team prepares for its fourth season in MLS and its second appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League. Just last week, on January 9, the club announced the departure of Dion Pereira, the continued loan of Jon Gallagher, and the signing of Anton Walkes. The next day, the club officially announced the transfer of Leandro Gonzalez Pirez to Club Tijuana of Liga MX, as well as the signing of center-back Fernando Neza.
With Gonzalez Pirez now gone, as well as Darlington Nagbe — traded to Columbus early in the offseason — and Michael Parkhurst — retired — only seven of the 14 players who appeared in MLS Cup 2018 are still on the roster. And even that number may get smaller still as Julian Gressel anxiously awaits the conclusion of his contract negotiations.
That 2018 team was constructed by then head coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, president Darren Eales, vice president/technical director Carlos Bocanegra, and assistant of soccer operations Paul McDonough. Martino left following the 2018 season, while McDonough joined the front office of expansion side Inter Miami during the 2019 season. Frank de Boer was hired to replace Martino, but with his appointment as coach just weeks prior to the start of preseason, de Boer was unable to truly shape the roster to his liking.
Before their first CCL match in February, Atlanta managed to sign Florentin Pogba, Dion Pereira, and Pity Martinez. Martinez was linked with Atlanta for weeks prior to the announcement of his signing, which led most observers to believe Martino acted as a catalyst in the Argentine’s signing. It was assumed that Pereira and Pogba, both with European backgrounds, signed because of de Boer’s European background.
This seemingly signaled a shift in the club’s approach to player signings. With a team originally constructed with young South American players, it looked as if Atlanta would start to sign players primarily from Europe. That shift was quickly refuted by the front office, and as the team heads into the 2020 competitive season, it looks like there will be a mix of both European and South American players.
However, a clear shift in the roster is occurring as important players depart and new ones enter the fray. The departure of Gonzalez Pirez is especially crucial.
Until now, all player exits from the MLS Cup-winning side have been understandable. Miguel Almiron followed his goal to play in the English Premier League. Greg Garza was traded to FC Cincinnati in order to open up space in the salary cap and give homegrown George Bello more time on the pitch. Nagbe wanted to return home to Ohio and reunite with former coach Caleb Porter. Chris McCann was waived because of his large salary.
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Yet, Gonzalez Pirez’s transfer to Club Tijuana is still somewhat unclear. In an interview with The Athletic’s Felipe Cardenas, Gonzalez Pirez made it clear that he did not ask to be transferred away from Atlanta. In a statement from the club, there was no mention of a reason for the transfer. Meanwhile, with Pereira, his desire to return to England was acknowledged in the club’s statement on his release. As such, Atlanta United proved their willingness to provide a reason for a transfer, and yet they didn’t for Gonzalez Pirez’s exit.
Most observers are left to form their own reasons for Gonzalez Pirez’s transfer. A popular theory among Atlanta supporters is that the center-back’s disagreements with de Boer’s tactical approach led to his transfer. Gonzalez Pirez was outspoken in the media about the team’s shift in focus from attacking to defending. His frustrations came to a head when he spoke with media at the MLS All-Star game and commented on the changed tactical approach.
Things eventual sorted themselves out as the team went on to capture the Campeones Cup and U.S. Open Cup. De Boer made clear tactical adjustments to appease the players and shift towards the style the players wanted to play. As time progresses and as de Boer begins to get the players he wants, those tactics may shift into his ideal setup, as opposed to molding to the players.
The club signed de Boer to a five-year contract, clearly indicating a long-term commitment. With such a lengthy contract, expect the club and front office to give everything they can to de Boer in order for him to be successful. This vision is beginning to take shape as players depart and new players continue to sign during this offseason. Each new signing and departure is a glimpse into what de Boer wants as he looks to build on the quick success Atlanta has experienced in just three seasons. And for some reason, it does include Gonzalez Pirez.