ATLANTA — “They were a little bit spoiled with the results of last season.”
That was Frank de Boer’s response to a question regarding Atlanta United fans’ criticisms of their new manager following the Five Stripes’ 1-1 home draw against FC Cincinnati on Sunday. The quote is not playing well among the soccer-watching denizens of Atlanta — no surprise here — but de Boer isn’t exactly wrong.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the locals are saying. Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s breakneck philosophy worked wonders, and the Five Stripes set Major League Soccer ablaze with 140 goals in their first two regular seasons and an MLS Cup victory at the end of 2018. Why would de Boer insist on overhauling the team’s tactics to fit his own ideas, and why would he stick to his guns in the face of such poor results? Atlanta has six goals from its first five competitive matches this season, with four of those coming in a Concacaf Champions League home leg against a significantly less talented CS Herediano side. What gives?
De Boer’s team has not had the chance to become comfortable with his system yet. Playing in two competitions has left little time for recovery or in-depth tactical work. Star signing Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez, who led CA River Plate to a Copa Libertadores title, is still building chemistry with his new teammates, and moving on from Miguel Almiron, Atlanta’s best player in 2017 and ’18, is proving to be difficult.
Almiron’s quality performances in the English Premier League since transferring to Newcastle United in January make it obvious what a special player he was in MLS. Expecting anyone, even the reigning South American Footballer of the Year, to step in and immediately fill Almiron’s shoes was always going to end in at least a little bit of disappointment. El Pity can and should be better than what he has shown so far, but he clearly needs time to acclimate.
Barring a result that would be improbable under the best circumstances, and seems impossible considering Atlanta’s current form, its Champions League run will come to an end at the hands of CF Monterrey Wednesday night. Going forward, the congested schedule will no longer be a challenge, de Boer’s players will be able to rest their legs and the manager will have a greater opportunity to install his preferred identity in training.
“I don’t really see a point in starting these ‘boos,’ or whatever it is,” wingback Julian Gressel said of the fans’ reaction to the Five Stripes’ draw Sunday. “Yeah, we want to score goals and we want to win games, so I understand it from that point of view. Ultimately, though, they’ve got to be a bit more patient, I think. If it stays like that for a bit longer, then I understand them, but I think for now, everybody needs to be a bit more patient. We’ll work through this, and we’ll score some more goals again.”
After opening the 2019 season with six games in 20 days, Atlanta will play six games over seven weeks, beginning Sunday against the visiting Philadelphia Union and running through the May 5 contest at Sporting Kansas City. If de Boer hasn’t sorted things out by the end of that stretch, it will be time to ponder just how patient the Five Stripes’ front office, and the fans who have rewritten the record book for MLS attendance, will be with Martino’s successor.
Miles Robinson is a star at center back
It’s fitting that with all of Atlanta’s offensive struggles, the biggest bright spot so far this season is in the back line. Center back Miles Robinson, the Five Stripes’ first-ever draft pick in 2017, has taken his new starting role with cool confidence. Robinson does not possess the passing skills shared by his back-three colleagues Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez, but he has been Atlanta’s best defender to date. Robinson has rarely put a foot wrong through five games and has on more than one occasion stepped in to clean up a mess created by Parkhurst or Gonzalez-Pirez.
In the 52nd minute Sunday, an errant back pass from Brek Shea was intercepted by Cincinnati forward Kekuta Manneh. As Manneh raced toward goal, Robinson quickly closed down the available space and shepherded the ball and his opponent over the end line for a goal kick. In a similar situation against Monterrey’s Dorlan Pabon last week, Gonzalez-Pirez extended his arm and conceded a penalty, which resulted in Los Rayados’ first goal. Robinson recognized the size advantage he had over Manneh and used his body to keep the attacker separated from the ball over 18 yards. It was a masterstroke.
Greg Garza receives hero’s welcome
Greg Garza subbed on for Alvas Powell to make his FC Cincinnati debut in the 71st minute. Garza spent the past two seasons bombing up and down the left flank for Atlanta United before being traded for a pile of allocation money in the days following the Fives Stripes’ MLS Cup win. Despite recurring injuries, he was a fan favorite at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Aside from Josef Martinez’ goal in the fifth minute, Garza’s introduction received the loudest ovation of the evening.
The left back expressed his gratitude on Twitter.
“Something I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life,” Garza wrote. “Thank you! Thank you, God, for providing these special moments in my life! I am forever grateful! Speechless, simply breathtaking.”
Something I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life. Thank you! Thank you God for providing these special moments in my life! I am forever grateful! Speechless, simply breathtaking. 🙏🏻♥️ #volumeon #blessed @fccincinnati @ATLUTD @MBStadium pic.twitter.com/rLzelgE9Df
— Gregory Garza (@gmgarza4) March 11, 2019