What happened to Atlanta's sparkle?

I developed, last MLS season, the habit of watching all of Atlanta United’s games. Not as a fan of the club, but as a fan of the vibrant soccer that they played.

I expected an attractive, skillful game, and that’s what I usually got. Which is asking quite a lot in these days of defensive formations and defense-dominated attitudes.

But there was more. Atlanta United’s soccer was fun. Superstar (and he was certainly that) Miguel Almiron did a lot of smiling, as did Coach Tata Martinez. And Josef Martinez had plenty to smile about as he broke the league’s season-scoring record.

I’m still watching Atlanta games, but the dynamic soccer has all but vanished. Taking with it the sheer enjoyment that bristled from those games. Last season, Atlanta games were special.

For me, Atlanta-2018, was the best-ever team in MLS. The fall from those heights has been rapid, calamitous ... and deeply saddening. It has taken less than half a season for Atlanta to shrink and shrivel into a rather ordinary team. The joyous vibes of delectable soccer have been replaced by ... well, replaced by what?

Could it be that we are now being asked to admire Atlanta as a defensive team? The MLS website seems to think so, telling us recently “Atlanta United break MLS consecutive shutout wins record.”

A story that contained not the slightest awareness that to hail Atlanta for its shutouts marked a massive denial of everything that made Atlanta so outstanding last year. In 39 MLS games last year, Atlanta had 10 shutouts. No big deal -- who was talking about them, anyway? All the excitement, what mattered, was happening at the other end of the field.

Counting shutouts -- and boasting about them -- is something that lesser teams do. Defensive teams, negative teams, as miserly as Scrooge, equally unattractive. You can be absolutely certain that when a team makes a big deal of its shutout stats, the soccer will be lousy.

Atlanta’s soccer is not lousy, but it is often boring, a far cry from the exuberant event that it was just a year ago. What has gone wrong? The departure of both Almiron and Tata Martinez has proved a severe blow -- one that has been compounded by bringing in totally unsuitable replacements. I had my say about the hiring of Frank de Boer some months back. Very definitely not the man for the job. Pity Martinez, ostensibly the man to replace Almiron, was another mistake, for Martinez is a very different sort of player.

Blaming de Boer for not being Tata Martinez, and Pity Martinez for not being Almiron gets us nowhere. Or rather it leads us to the Atlanta bosses, the ones who approved the appointments. To make two such damaging signings hints pretty clearly at a basic misunderstanding. It suggests that the Atlanta hierarchy simply did not understand what it had last year. That it failed to grasp that the key to the team’s sparkle, and hence its winning ways, was its Latin American core.

I can think of no other explanation for the choice of de Boer, a coach with no experience of the Latin game. But how much experience of the Latin game did the Atlanta bosses have? Not enough to recognize that Pity Martinez could never be a strict replacement for Almiron. That was a trickier decision, but even so one wonders just how the more cerebral cleverness of Pity Martinez was supposed to have the same effect, never mind the same fan appeal, as Almiron’s spectacular, even flashy brilliance.

Atlanta has lost its guiding light in Tata Martinez, it has lost the sprightly, mischievous-but-menacing, presence of Almiron on the field. I do not find it reassuring to read stories singing the praises of Jeff Larentowicz (not at all sprightly and not particularly skillful).

Nor was I impressed when de Boer praised Darlington Nagbe as his “No 10.” Back in the 1950s the English had a term for players like Nagbe -- “utility players” -- they were good but not outstanding, and greatly useful in those pre-substitution days because they could play, competently, several different positions. They have disappeared now that substitutes are allowed. Frankly, a team that seems to allot key roles to the likes of Larentowicz and Nagbe (to say nothing of the flaky Brad Guzan) looks like a team in trouble. Meanwhile, Josef Martinez, last season’s prolific scorer has trouble finding the net, and both Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco fail to show the star-quality they surely have.

Another report on the MLS website talked of the Atlanta players coming “to understand what the Dutchman [de Boer] was asking of them.” Odd. De Boer has taken over a club coming off one of the most successful-ever seasons of any MLS team. A situation that hardly calls for change. If there’s any learning to be done, it should be De Boer doing it.

But De Boer’s lack of familiarity with the Latin style is a formidable obstacle. Brian Fernandez, the Argentine who has just joined Portland, recently commented on his quick adjustment, praising the fellow-Argentines on the club: “It’s very important to have players like Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco ... for me, I consider myself a fast player so it’s easier for me to find the spaces knowing I have players like Valeri and Blanco backing me up.”

There is a lovely hint there of the subtleties and nuances of the interplay of the Latin game. When it’s there, as Fernandez has found it in Portland, things go well. But when a coach is “asking” something different of South American players, the intricacies and the instincts of the Latin game are likely to get crushed.

I’m hoping that the Atlanta bosses appreciate that. If they do, but still persist with de Boer, then we shall know that they don’t consider the Latin touch all that important. Or that they never knew they had it. Either way, the tedious technicalities of a Dutch theorist will have won out over the spontaneous creativity of the Latin game. And Atlanta will become just another MLS team.

Not a consummation devoutly to be wished, so I shall continue my Atlanta watch hoping that the diminishing flame of Atlanta-2018 can be rekindled.

Photo: Atlanta United

10 comments about "What happened to Atlanta's sparkle?".
  1. Gary Levitt, May 28, 2019 at 9:21 a.m.

    Paul - Atlanta United was not a 'Latin team, playing a Latin style' last year.  Tata used his players and their skills and tactical awareness to play high pressure and play forward at high pace.  Both FB's attacked perilously - Escobar, Garza, etc.  Almiron was a one-off and Tata used him and his high work rate to generate high-pace attacking - not specifically 'Latin'.  This year, the combination of a coaching change, player changes, injuries, and a ridiculous schedule have yielded marginal results - and for good reasons.  Do Atlanta fans want what we had last year? In a word, yes.  The reality is this year's player pool, combined wth injuries, has de Boer deploying a marginal player pool compared to last year.  Almiron, and when Garza was healthy, made a huge difference in ball-winning and generating speed of the counter attack.  Pity Martinez is not Almiron, and no one, including Eales and Bocanegra thought so.  He was simply another piece of the player pool - not a like-for-like for Almiron.  It is tough to watch ATL UTD this year - but the reallty is that they don't have the assets to play what you call a 'Latin' style.  I call it high pressure and counter-attacking, not 'Latin'.  Gary

  2. Alan Goldstein replied, May 28, 2019 at 9:58 a.m.

    Teams that count shutouts are sure to play lousy soccer? You mean like Liverpool? The fact is that there are sides that use possession to springboard attacks while limiting the opposition to few attempts to score and then using organization and talent to stifle those few attempts. Too bad if Atlanta isn't one of those right now, but the generalization that producing and having pride in one's shutouts automatically means lousy soccer ignores the teams that manage to accomplish great things at both ends of the field and they absolutely do exist. 

  3. Alan Gay, May 28, 2019 at 9:57 a.m.

    Yes, the sparkle is sadly gone.  But was it ever not going to be, with Almiron gone?  I think we ALL underestimated Miggy's impact, particularly on the productivity of players like Gressel, the FB's, Tito, and most importantly Joseph M.  Miggy drew two defenders and often a third covering, which left acres of space for everyone else.  Gressel can be a genious on the wing in space, but when covered he's just a return pass.  Joseph got his 2017-18 chances running at the goal, usually with defenders doing the same.  He's world class at that, but as 2019 has shown, he is average at best with his back to the goal, trying to attack on the dribble, or be a static target on a cross when he is giving away 8" in height.  (Necessity has shown he is a pretty good distributor when he drops into the midfield.) 

    Tata was recently in Atlanta promoting the Mexico friendly, and he made an interesting comment in the local paper.  Paraphrased, he said that even he could not have anticipated the magic that Almiron and Martinez created, implying that it was largley not of his own doing.  That comment told me why Tata had no intention of staying in Atlanta, knowing the FO was committed to honoring their commitment to help Miggy get to Europe.  Tata knew the sparkle was leaving, even if he stayed on.

    I'll stipulate that AU could have hired a Tata-like coach.  The question is what replacement for Miggy did AU miss, and could AU really build a long term strategy around always having a Miggy-like player on the roster?  I think the model for AU is more likely Bradley's LAFC, and quite frankly, without Barco and without a P. Martinez in top form, AU isn't close to having that type of attacking talent on the field. My complaint with FdB is I don't know what isn't happening that FdB thinks should be happening.  If the answer is "well, we shouldn't have given up that second goal in SLC", then I'm afraid you are correct... the old sparkle will never be replaced with a new one.

  4. beautiful game, May 28, 2019 at 10:12 a.m.

    Player chemistry meshed with game tactics rules.

  5. James Madison, May 28, 2019 at 3:25 p.m.

    Hey Paul, try watching LAFC.

  6. frank schoon, May 28, 2019 at 3:53 p.m.

    Simple , Atlanta's make up is different this year and having lost Almeron is a big loss for he gave Martinez more room to operate in by drawing defenders away. 
    In the beginning this season ,I was not happy how Atlanta played and was mostly bored. But I have to look at the positive side which to me is the big picture for our soccer. We have for the first time  in history of the league a team that predicates upon ball possession. Ball possession is an aspect that the American player simply "suck" at. We don't have the ability coachingwise to teach and players to play possession ball. This is why we play basically counter attacking ball for the past 50years. We basically have played 4-4-2 for most of the years, a system Cruyff calls  " a wonderful system for lesser players", which involves lots of running and fighting, both aspects which American players are definitely good at and known for....
    By hiring Frank de Boer, a former Ajax,  Barcelona, and Dutch national team player, coached, influenced and trained by two great coaches, van Gaal and Johan Cruyff. De Boer also has been trained and developed by the Ajax system. We are fortunate to have him come here with those excellent accredations to teach our players, the better DNA of soccer. This is a great investment for our American players and coaches to learn and from for what deBoer teaches is not something you can learn fron your local USSF coaching school. There is more to possession soccer, the little details, the secrets of trade that just are not gotten from a book or from a coaching course.
    The American players on Atlanta have goldmine of knowledge to learn from de Boer for he has done it all.
    I personally don't care while De Boer is coach of Atlanta end up in the middle of table the next 4 years, because what I find more important is overal DNA the Americans will learn from him and for them to teach and use it in later years to their players. This is how soccer develops. 
    To me De Boer is the first coach who is the most qualified to bring improved changes to our game. He will raise our game to the next level ...although it will take time, but if you see Nagbe and how he plays now, it's like difference between day and night...He's learning, how to be efficient, where to look for the next pass and other things. Although he needs to work on a shot, he's definitely benefitted already.
    Atlanta last year relied upon Martinez and Almeron with a supporting cast but this year everyone is important and play a role functioning as a total team ; it is still a work in process. It took Cruyff a year to teach his players at Ajax to play 4-3-3, therefore De Boer needs time to get this team to play better. I do think he needs to replace Shea at leftback.. 

  7. Bob Ashpole, May 28, 2019 at 4:25 p.m.

    This article identifies the problem, but I cringe at explaining Tata's success to being a "Latin" coach or Altanta last year playing a "Latin" style.

    We need to get past the notion that good soccer is a cultural characteristic. 

  8. Nick Gabris, May 29, 2019 at 12:14 p.m.

    Paul! suggestion! Watch LAFC, it will give you the fix you need! Same vibe as last years Atlanta.

  9. Jogo Bonito, June 1, 2019 at 3:58 p.m.

    PG hit the nail on the head when he writes: “... Atlanta hierarchy simply did not understand what it had last year.” 

    That is exactly how I saw the situation as well. Tata’s brilliance as a coach was not so much what he said, as it was what he chose not to say. He was a man with great confidence in his decisions and trusted his players to perform at a high level because they’re high level players. He fine tuned things, of course, but his players never looked weighed down by tactical restraints. 

    Frank de Boer has never showed to be a coach that understands the way players think. Which is odd when you consider the fact that he was a very experienced professional player. 

    Atlanta’s directors may not have understood that coaching professionals is often not as much as about tactics as it is about people management and giving pros the freedom to play without fear. 

    Soccer is, and will always be a player’s game. Often the most successful coaches are the ones that give their teams the freedom to become self-reliant and development an environment where players feel a sense of ownership of the product on the field. Latin players often grow up in a less coach-dominated environment so this style is a comfortable feeling. 

    FdB’s Atlanta team looks repressed and, at times, oppressed on the field. Certainly the opposite of everything Tata’s Atlanta gave us. 

  10. Larry Beck, August 6, 2019 at 3:47 p.m.

    FIFA needs to change some rules to enhance scoring!  I have many suggestions for rule changes.  First of all, eliminate the off-sides rule!  I am sick and tired of seeing beautiful goals called back because a player is 12 inches off-sides!  One of the FIFA higher-ups actually suggested getting rid of off-sides, but nothing happened.  Without offsides, players could spread out around the entire field and eliminate the crowding that now prevails in games.  Without off-sides, forwards could stay more up front and be ready for breakaway opportunities to score more goals.  Defenders would then have to mark those players and the field would open up.  Refs could concentrate more on catching violent plays rather than watching for off-sides!  Current rules favor defense over offense!

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