Atlanta United: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez departure not the problem

Inter Miami, Atlanta United, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Inter Miami, Atlanta United, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images) /

This season, Atlanta United have struggled to fill out their defence thanks to massive injury problems. But losing Leandro Gonzalez Pirez in the offseason was not the problem.

Atlanta United suffered what many considered to be a troubling offseason. After building one of the best teams in Major League Soccer history, the Five Stripes saw several of their assets stripped as they struggled to maintain their roster under the stringent league salary cap.

Julian Gressel, the club’s leading assister, Darlington Nagbe, the crucial central midfielder that is the cornerstone of the team, and also Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, who, bar Miles Robinson’s emergence as an elite MLS centre-back, was the prime organiser of the defence.

Their wide-ranging losses, and the quality of the players that departed in the process, saw many observers question whether they would be able to replicate their recent success. And at the heart of it was the departure of Gonzalez Pirez, who was viewed as an integral piece of the MLS Cup-winning team from 2018 as well as the 2019 side.

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From an emotional level, Gonzalez Pirez was the heartbeat of the Atlanta team. He was regularly in touch with the fan base, has been the figurehead for the team in the city, and was often seen as the leading character in the dressing room. But from a footballing perspective, there are questions regarding Gonzalez Pirez that did need to be answered.

He is terrific in possession. Gonzalez Pirez is more than comfortable to step into midfield, to take possession high up the pitch, and to progress play into advanced areas of the pitch. And defensively, he has a skill set that allows him to perform at a very high level for certain matches and periods of form. He is athletic, powerful, superb in the air, and aggressive in his decision-making.

So why did they let him go? And why is it not necessarily the key issue for the team despite the injuries that have best the position?

Well, Gonzalez Pirez did have some defensive deficiencies. His overly aggressive manner gets him into trouble, his marking is loose, at the best of times, and he has the propensity to wander positionally, which opponents have exploited in the past. Given his high-end potential, these are not necessarily criminal errors that could utterly undermine his value. But value is critical to the Gonzalez Pirez problem.

At $800,000 per year, Gonzalez Pires is paid as one of the premier central defenders in the league. With these flaws, it is fair to question whether he is at that level. He is a very good centre-back, yes, but in a salary cap league, efficient spending is essential and paying a very good centre-back like an elite one is not efficient.

And while the injury problems early in the season have been problematic, most notably the continued absence of Robinson, Fernando Meza looks like a composed replacement for Gonzalez Pirez, while Anton Walkes has impressed early on in the season also. Franco Escobar is also present, if he can get over his own injury issues. There is plenty of depth there, with or without Gonzalez Pirez.

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So yes, it is easy to look at the current defensive shortages at Atlanta United and link them to the departure of Gonzalez Pirez. But in reality, that decision was disconnected and not the source of their current problems. Gonzalo Pirez was a good centre-back paid like an elite one. Letting that player leave, while frustrating to see a decent player depart, is no bad decision.