No other Major League Soccer franchise has demonstrated its ambition as boldly as Atlanta United has. Since the club’s expansion season in 2017, the Five Stripes have consistently set the benchmark for the rest of American soccer. Last season, however, presented Atlanta United with a crossroads in their short history.
Indeed, Atlanta United finished a lowly 11th in the Eastern Conference. This wasn’t the first time they had missed out on the MLS playoffs, but the 2020 season was billed as a blip. It was easier to explain away the failures of two years given the circumstances around the league due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
2022, on the other hand, was more damaging.
Garth Lagerwey has been hired to straighten out the problems. Widely considered one of the best General Managers in MLS, the 50-year-old claims Atlanta United have “limitless potential.” His remit is a far-reaching one, with Lagerwey afforded the freedom to remould the Five Stripes in the same way he did the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake.
The clear-out of the Atlanta United squad started soon after Lagerwey’s arrival at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Josef Martinez’s departure to Inter Miami will bring the number of players who have left the club since the end of last season to 13 with Emerson Hyndman, Marcelino Moreno, Alan Franco and Dom Dwyer all cleared from the roster, and the wage bill.
It’s not yet obvious what Atlanta United will build now that they have cleared the decks, but the decisions Lagerwey has made over the off-season so far will make the construction of something new easier, even if the blueprint isn’t immediately clear. It might take some time for Atlanta to settle on a new identity as a team.
“There might be at least three players coming and different positions,” Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda said at his team’s pre-season camp when asked whether or not fans could expect new arrivals over the coming weeks and months. “We know which ones, but we’ll be announcing that sooner.”
Martinez must be replaced as Atlanta United’s attacking focal point. The Venezuelan might have reached the end of his time at Mercedes-Benz Stadium following a tumultuous final season at the club, but Lagerwey and Pineda need to use the cap space freed up by Inter Miami’s signing of Martinez to elevate the quality of their team as a whole.
New recruits in central midfield and central defence is also an area of focus, with Atlanta United signing Peruvian central defender Luis Abram from Granada CF only today. It’s the first of several players Lagerwey has hinted the club will bring in, after making it clear that they would bide their time to find the right players. It’s not guaranteed that Atlanta will be fully ready for the start of the season.
Lagerwey’s comments regarding Atlanta United’s “limitless potential” were eye-catching, but not necessarily incorrect. Atlanta United have matched arguably the best GM in the league with the franchise owner with the deepest pockets. The Five Stripes might have had a fallow year – or two, counting 2020 – but they could still lift the left in MLS.
In terms of his role, Lagerwey’s job at Mercedes-Benz Stadium is different to the one he held at Seattle and RSL in that he is now a club president rather than a GM. “I’m supposed to make everybody better,” Lagerwey said when asked what his day-to-day routine will look like now that he is in Georgia.
“There’s so much to be excited about – my job is to come in and be thorough,” Lagerwey continued in his interview. “Go slow to move fast. Come in and do an analysis, do a deep dive to understand the business and soccer aspects, then once we’re prepared, to go forward and make decisions.”
Los Angeles FC and the Philadelphia Union set the precedent at the top of the Eastern and Western Conferences in 2022 and a lot of things will need to come together very quickly for Atlanta United to be at their level this season. Other franchises like the Houston Dynamo and Columbus Crew are also rebooting for 2023.
Atlanta United caught the imagination when they entered MLS in 2017 with the biggest attendances the league had ever seen. They were just as successful on the pitch, winning MLS Cup in only their second season. Now, though, it’s time for a new era at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Lagerwey is gearing up to show us all what they have in mind.