Atlanta United: Why style, not substance, motivated Frank de Boer firing

On Friday afternoon, Atlanta United announced that Frank de Boer and the club mutually agreed to part ways. Style, not substance, was the motivation of the decision.

Atlanta United and manager Frank de Boer mutually parted ways less than three days after Atlanta bowed out of the MLS is Back Tournament. The team finished last in Group E with no goals and no points.

It was a somewhat strong group, featuring the Columbus Crew, New York Red Bulls, and FC Cincinnati. However, no one pegged Cincinnati to advance and most depicted the Red Bulls as a weaker team compared to recent years. Yet, Atlanta, a club which prides itself on an entertaining attacking identity, failed to score a single goal and managed an abysmal 13 shots on target across their three games.

Despite strong results in 2019, the team lacked the exciting, energetic attacking approach under former manager Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino in 2017 and 2018. The team looked static under de Boer despite the additions of players like Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez.

De Boer and his coaching staff led the team to two trophies in 2019, his only full year in charge. Atlanta won the U.S. Open Cup and the Campeones Cup. They also finished second in the Eastern Conference and advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference final before falling 2-1 to Toronto FC. Despite the trophies and general success, however, de Boer’s tenure was stressful from the start, which is what likely led to his downfall.

In his first match in charge, a CCL match against Costa Rican side CS Herediano, Atlanta looked unorganized and toothless in a 3-1 loss. The team righted the ship with a 4-0 win in the return leg but an extremely slow start to the MLS season did nothing to assuage the fears displayed from fans early.

The Five Stripes only earned five points from their first five matches and the team did not win a match until April. Despite a five-game winning streak at the end of the spring, the team fell flat once again heading into the summer. It wasn’t until star striker Josef Martinez spoke up to the coaching staff during a 2-1 loss to the Seattle Sounders that the team turned things around.

It was at this point that the underlying contentious atmosphere at the club came to ahead. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez spoke to the media during the All-Star Game in Orlando in July. He was critical of de Boer:

“Things have changed a lot, the way the club has played the game and we don’t like it.”

Pity Martinez also spoke up about de Boer in July, criticizing de Boer’s remarks about subbing him early in games. The unrest was clear to see, bubbling under the surface while the talent of the players allowed Atlanta United to continue winning in spite of a brewing problem.

De Boer, of course, was never going to be a direct replacement for Martino. His European background varies greatly from Martino’s South American heritage, which resonated heavily with a core of South American players including Josef Martinez, Gonzalez-Pirez, Pity Martinez, and Hector ‘Tito’ Villalba.

After two seasons averaging 70 goals and 62 points, the Five Stripes finished 2019 with a meager 58 points and just 58 goals scored. It was clear that the team lost its attacking flair under de Boer and struggled to truly entertain its supporters. It was this absence of attacking potency that consistently left de Boer not especially popular among the Atlanta faithful. It felt as though the team was winning in spite of him, not because of him. And then, in a revolutionary offseason in which substantial talent departed, such disparity in coaching and talent was exposed.

REUNION, FLORIDA – JULY 16: Head coach Frank de Boer of Atlanta United (C) looks on during a Group E match against FC Cincinnati as part of the MLS Is Back Tournament at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on July 16, 2020 in Reunion, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

This winter, the club offloaded some of its core players, including Darlington Nagbe, Julian Gressel, Gonzalez Pirez, and Villaba. It is unclear whether de Boer had a say in those transfers or whether technical director Carlos Bocanegra made those final decisions but some players appeared ready to leave because of factors not related to the team.

The front office and coaching staff brought in attacking reinforcements including Mattheus Rossetto, Manuel Castro, Jake Mulraney, Adam Jahn, and Brooks Lennon. With such heavy roster turnover, however, supporters were initially wary of the 2020 season and another year of tinkering from de Boer.

An opening CCL aggregate win over Motagua helped lessen the supporters’ worries, but two mediocre victories to start the MLS season and a season-ending injury to Josef Martinez set things back significantly. Just before the pandemic shut MLS down, Atlanta lost 3-0 to Club America in the first leg of their CCL quarter-final as the team sat back and showed no signs of attacking endeavor against the Liga MX giants.

And then came the final nail in the subdued coffin. After months of preparation for the MLS is Back tournament, Atlanta showed hardly any attacking signs of life. They did not score a goal, rarely looked like troubling their opponents, and proceeded to lose all three games in a group that allowed a historically poor FC Cincinnati team to qualify in second place. The performances only cemented the idea that the players succeeded in 2019 in spite of de Boer’s coaching, not because of it.

Atlanta United’s decision to fire Frank de Boer carries a clear message: the team was not playing with the attacking identity promised to its fans. It was not the results, however much they tailed off upon the result. It was not the lack of success. It was not even the prospects of the team. It was the style, and, in the end, the coach must take the blame for that.