New look Atlanta United prepare for 2021

Josef Martinez, pictured here, is United’s all-time leading scorer. He missed almost all of last season with a torn ACL, but looks to return to form in 2021. // Photo courtesy of John Bazemore via AP Photo

After a rough 2020 that saw the worst year in the club’s history, Atlanta United looks to push the reset button as the 2021 MLS season and CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) draw near under new manager Gabriel Heinze and a revamped roster featuring some familiar faces and new blood for the Five Stripes.

Atlanta United in their second year under manager Frank de Boer came out of the gate strong in 2020 in the CCL, which they qualified for by winning the 2019 US Open Cup, defeating CD Motagua of Honduras 4-1 on aggregate. They then traveled to Nashville SC to be the first opponents of the new MLS club and then hosted FC Cincinnati in Atlanta. United won both matches 2-1. Atlanta then traveled to Mexico City to take on Liga MX giants Club America for the second round of CCL on March 11 as COVID-19 shut the world down, a game which they would lose 3-0. On July 8, the season resumed with a world cup style tournament format at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida.

United disastrously crashed out of the tournament during the group stage, losing all three matches 1-0 and failing to gain even a point towards qualifying for the knockout rounds. United fired their then manager Frank de Boer after their final match in Orlando.

After Orlando, teams played games in regional pods to minimize travel and contact between squads. United continued to struggle throughout the shortened regular season with interim head coach Steven Glass, finishing 12th in the Eastern Conference, failing to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in the club’s history. As the offseason set in, United hired Gabriel Heinze as the new manager.

Heinze was an accomplished player in his own right before he became a manager. The central defender/left back totaled 426 appearances and 23 goals across the top divisions in Argentina, Spain, Portugal, England, France, and Italy. In addition, he tallied 71 appearances and 3 goals for the Argentine National Team.

Heinze’s coaching career began in Argentina with a short stint at Godoy Cruz, a club in the Argentine Primera Division, but a short record of 2-2-6 got him fired only a couple of months into the season. A little less than a year later in 2016 he was signed as the head coach at Argentinos Juniors, where he took the club on a campaign that would finish with their promotion back to the Primera Division of Argentine Football. Heinze resigned following this season and went a few months without work. In December of 2017 he was named the manager of Velez Sarsfield of the Argentine Primera Division. Heinze led Velez to two consecutive Copa Sudamericana qualifications before deciding not to continue coaching after the 2020 season ended. He was then hired by Atlanta United on Dec. 18, 2020.

Heinze brings a vast amount of experience in the top leagues around the world, and his track record shows an ability to turn teams around quickly and get results, something Atlanta desperately needs. Tactically, Heinze’s teams usually set up in the 3-4-3 that’s focused on a wide offense that moves in and out of the middle of the pitch to advance the ball with offensive pressing and positioning that draws out defenders and leaves the halfspaces open, creating the ability to move the ball upfield quickly while overloading the opponent. However, this focus on width can often leave the teams vulnerable to counterattacks down the middle. Defensively, Heinze employs a true hybrid between man and zonal marking across the field that doesn’t lend itself to super aggressive counterattacks. The key to what Heinze will employ in Atlanta is his adaptability. The 3-4-3 shape he employs from the outset shifts constantly, and given that United has done a lot to revamp their roster in the offseason, it is anyone’s guess as to how United line-up the first time out, especially considering this is Heinze’s first tangle with MLS of any kind.

Atlanta also made quite a number of roster moves in the offseason.

Machop Chol: A homegrown who was featured in one of the first Atlanta United Academy teams, Machop left the academy to play four years at college soccer powerhouse Wake Forest, where he would appear in 65 games with 13 goals and 17 assists in his career. The attacking midfielder’s ability to find space in the box and height of 6’2” makes him a prime target for crossing balls looking to be headed goalwards.

Ronald Hernandez: A young Venezulan defender who played every match of Venezuela’s 2019 Copa America run alongside Josef Martinez, Hernandez has joined United on loan for the season from partner club Aberdeen FC. His pace should see him slot in well to the quickness of Gabriel Heinze’s system.

Franco Ibarra: The 19 year old midfielder has only begun to show the world what he’s capable of with less than 20 professional appearances, but coming from Argentinos Juniors Gabriel Henize should be well aware of Ibarra’s ability.

The kid is unproven and rough around the edges, but his heart is on his sleeve while he plays as he’s never afraid to make a tackle or take the ball and run. Atlanta United Technical Director Carlos Bocengra says they expect Ibarra to play in the middle of the team as a box-to-box midfielder who will be central to the team in every way.

Santiago Sosa: Another young midfielder, Sosa has a little more experience than Ibarra, having made 16 appearances for Argentine giant River Plate, playing six games in their 2020 Copa Libertadores run. He also appeared 13 times for the Argentine U-20s National Team, some of which were alongside United’s Ezequiel Barco. Sosa will look to slot into the midfield as a facilitator of the game using his ability to make tackles and win balls to overturn the opponent. He also seems to have a good eye to pick out passes that ignite the attack and advance the ball quickly.

Lisandro Lopez: A veteran forward with 244 professional goals in Argentina, Portugal, and France, Lopez has played in the UEFA Champions League and Copa Libertadores on quite a few occasions. Lopez will likely act as a super sup and depth piece for United backing up Josef Martinez.

Alex De John: Coming to Atlanta after two years at Orlando City SC, De John played a number of years in Finland, Norway, and Sweden before moving to MLS. The 29 year old defender has only made 12 appearances in the last two years, so expect him to act as a depth piece primarily.

Notably, striker Josef Martinez is back after blowing out his knee in the first Nashville match. Don’t expect the Josef, who broke the MLS scoring record, to be the guy on the field in the first match. Carlos Bocengra warns that it will take him some time for him to return to true form. But beyond his ability to score goals, Atlanta United need their leader back, as his absence was detrimental to the team in 2020.

Atlanta United begin their season against Alajuelense on April 6 and April 13 in the CONCACAF Champions League.

They then travel to Orlando City SC to open the MLS season on April 17. The Five Stripes make their home debut at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against the Chicago Fire on April 24.