Atlanta United has sat confidently atop the MLS Eastern Conference table for most of the season. It has a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League in hand, the MLS Supporters’ Shield in reach, and the playoffs in sight, but the biggest questions surrounding the team seem to be about who’s injured, who’s coming, and who’s leaving.
With one game left in what has been a dream season thus far for the Five Stripes, questions are swirling about injuries to Miguel Almiron and Hector Villalba, the likely sale of of Almiron, the replacement for departing coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, and the possible arrival of River Plate number-ten Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez.
Atlanta United Faces Uncertainty With Its Manager
Perhaps the biggest of those questions is the one concerning the next head coach.
After months of uncertainty and a steady stream of reports out of Mexico, Atlanta United officially announced that Martino will leave the club after this season. “It was simply the right move for me and my family at this time,” Martino said in a statement on the team’s official website. “What is most important now is that the focus remain on our goals for this season,” he added.
In any event, the rumor mill was already a step ahead of Martino’s revelation, as multiple South American news outlets have Atlanta lining up current Boca Juniors coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto as Martino’s replacement.
Team President Darren Eales, true to form, has kept his cards close to his chest with respect to the coaching search, but it seems likely that the team will go with another highly regarded South American coach with an eye toward sustaining the team’s identity as a destination for young South American attacking talent.
Injuries at Exactly the Wrong Time
With full respect to Josef Martinez, Almiron is perhaps Atlanta’s most irreplaceable player. Losing Villalba to a thigh muscle injury on top of that puts the Five Stripes in a tough spot indeed.
Against the Chicago Fire on Sunday, Martino tapped 19-year-old Ezequiel Barco and 18-year-old Andrew Carleton to fill the star-shaped holes in the lineup. Barco and Carleton put in good work deployed behind Josef Martinez in a fluid playmaking trio with Julian Gressel, but they were unable to replace Almiron’s playmaking or ball-winning.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s outstanding beat writer Doug Roberson reported on Friday that Villalba has returned to full training with the team and is likely to play this weekend, but Almiron remains out.
So Atlanta will have to again find a way to win without its number-ten when the team travels to Toronto this weekend with a chance to clinch the Supporters’ Shield, the trophy for the best record in the MLS regular season.
An Eye on Next Season
Perhaps the best evidence of Almiron’s value to ATL is the price its leadership is willing to spend on replacing him. Reports out of Argentina say that Eales is set to hand over some $17 million to River Plate for Pity Martinez. That figure would break Atlanta’s own transfer record that it set when it dropped $15 million on Barco last spring.
That big investment is expected to be needed because of the seemingly imminent departure of Almiron to Europe. Exactly where he is headed is anybody’s guess, as there have been too many conflicting reports to know which one to trust, but all the signs point to Miggy’s exit during the January transfer window.
Five Stripes fans have enjoyed an embarrassment of riches already this year. They got to see Martinez set a new record for goals scored in a season. Atlanta has already tied the record for points in a season and seems likely to break it on the final matchday against Toronto FC. Fans have gotten to watch break-outs from young players, improbable comebacks, and stunning goals.
But at a time when fans might be looking toward the dream end of a dream season, injuries have put a wrench in the works, and some of the most consequential storylines are more about who will be there next year.
With a one-point lead over the New York Red Bulls going into the final match of the regular season, Atlanta United has a chance to secure its first trophy in club history. But that’s not the only story in town, and it might not even be the biggest story.