Atlanta United: Taking stock of the club’s very busy offseason

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 22: Gonzalo Martinez #10 of Atlanta United celebrates scoring a goal during an MLS game against the Nashville SC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on August 22, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 22: Gonzalo Martinez #10 of Atlanta United celebrates scoring a goal during an MLS game against the Nashville SC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on August 22, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images) /

Atlanta United’s preseason is underway and the club is nearly done with its roster overhaul. We provide a look into the club’s numerous moves.

Despite winning MLS Cup in 2018 and the US Open Cup as well as the Campeones Cup in 2019, Atlanta United experienced a horrible 2020 season. Second year manager Frank de Boer was fired after only handful of matches, talisman Josef Martinez missed the entire season due to injury and the club failed to make the playoffs for the first time in its brief history.

There are many reasons to be optimistic heading into the 2021 MLS season, however. Martinez is healthy and expected to make his usual MVP-level impact. Atlanta showed signs of promise in their last competitive match back in December, too, in a 1-0 win over Liga MX giant Club America, including a goal from homegrown teenager Jackson Conway.

But the biggest reason for optimism in the dirty south is the new man on the touchline: Gabriel Heinze, whose managerial resume includes Argentine clubs Godoy Cruz, Argentino Juniors, and Velez Sarsfield. Heinze is a bielsista, meaning he employs tactics heavily influenced by fellow compatriot and coaching legend Marcelo Bielsa, who is currently managing Leeds United in the Premier League. Other notable bielsistas include Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino, and former Atlanta manager Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino.

Heinze’s appointment as manager has already brought significant change to the club, specifically in the form of roster turnover. Most Atlanta fans expected change after their dreadful 2020 season, but most did not expect this much change. Since the MLS season ended back in December, Atlanta have moved on from 13 players and signed or are rumored to sign up to 10 players. That’s roughly a third of the roster.

Since preseason is finally underway, let’s take this time to look at these player moves, especially the big ones, and figure out why these moves were made.

Players out

M Jeff Larentowicz;  D Edgar Castillo; F Adam Jahn; F Andrew Carleton; M Manuel Castro; F Lagos Kunga; GK Brendan Moore; F JJ Williams; M Laurence Wyke; F Jon Gallagher; D Fernando Meza; M Erik Remedi; D Franco Escobar

Most of these moves are no brainers. Players like Larentowicz, Castillo, and Jahn are MLS veterans and were primarily used as depth in 2020. They are expendable in the grand scheme of things, even if Larentowicz played a big role in the club’s first four seasons. Younger players like Carleton, Castro, Kunga, Moore, Williams, and Wyke are also expendable since most didn’t truly earn first team minutes during their time in Atlanta.

Trading Gallagher in the offseason to expansion side Austin FC seemed puzzling at first, especially since he was one of the few lone bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2020 season. However, with a new manager and new players on the way, along with the interest from Austin, trading Gallagher for allocation money is just good business.

Meza, who was only signed a year ago, is now on a season long loan to Argentine club Defensa y Justicia. There’s no telling whether or not Meza truly settled with his new team in Atlanta between heavy roster turnover and a pandemic. However, it seems the front office saw enough, and now Meza is gone for the time being. Don’t expect Meza to return, especially with the club’s clear desire to sign a center back from outside MLS.

Although he started in Atlanta’s 2018 MLS Cup victory, Remedi is now gone as well. He was traded to the San Jose Earthquakes in exchange for allocation money. Remedi played one of the more important roles in their 2018 title winning season but it seems Heinze doesn’t rate Remedi enough to keep him. This is a win-win for both clubs as Remedi rejoins former manager Matias Almeyda and Atlanta frees up a roster spot for more midfield players.

The biggest outgoing move of the offseason for Atlanta is Escobar’s loan move to Argentine side Newell’s Old Boys. Escobar and Heinze were actually teammates at Newell’s, though once again it’s unclear whether or not Heinze rates the defender. Escobar’s contract, which runs out at the end of the season, also creates an interesting wrinkle in this move. Atlanta seem unwilling to give Escobar a new deal, hence the loan move and likely permanent transfer to Argentina.

Players in

D Efrain Morales; F Jackson Conway; M/F Machop Chol; F Erick ‘Cubo’ Torres; D Mikey Ambrose; F Lisandro Lopez; M Santiago Sosa; M Franco Ibarra; D Lautaro Gianetti; Erik Lopez

Atlanta continued their practice of signing homegrown players with the trio of Morales, Conway, and Chol. Morales may not see much of the field this season due to a loaded center back group, but Conway’s impact was felt back in December against Club America and Chol was snapped up just before this year’s SuperDraft.

The team also made a trio of depth signings with Torres, Ambrose, and Lisandro Lopez. Torres’ contract initially ran out at the end of last season but now has a new deal with the club that will see him spend time as an academy coach. Ambrose, who projects as left back depth for George Bello, returns to Atlanta after having previously played for the club from 2017 through 2019. Lopez is also expected to provide striker depth, along with providing support to Heinze as a locker room leader.

Sosa is arguably the team’s biggest signing of the offseason. Heinze’s preferred tactical approach requires a midfielder that is comfortable dropping between the center backs and receiving the ball with his back to goal. He is expected to fill this role and may be seen as one of the team’s most important players by the end of the season. Sosa is also reportedly a U22 young player initiative signing.

Ibarra is another young midfielder and is also reportedly a U22 signing. His role is not as clear as Sosa’s. Ibarra could be used as depth for Sosa but may also play one of the other midfield positions. Regardless, this is another crucial midfield signing for a team whose midfield struggled mightily in 2020 after losing Darlington Nagbe.

Erik Lopez’s signing is flying under the radar because he was actually signed in the summer but was loaned to USL side Atlanta United 2 due to roster restrictions. The teenaged attacker finally made his first team debut in CCL against Club America in December and had one of the best individual performances of the match. Because of his lack of playing time last year it remains to be seen just where Lopez fits into this squad. He could be a starter, a depth player, or a combination of both.

Center back is most likely the club’s last big move of the offseason. With Meza and Escobar out the door, center back is the last major need. Lautaro Gianetti was set to fill that role and more, having captained Heinze’s Velez team down in Argentina But he failed his physical with the club due to an ACL injury in recent years and the deal fell through.  Miles Robinson enters his third year as starting center back but is still just 23 and working to improve his game, so the club may still attempt to sign a center back before the season starts.