Editorial (January 13, 2019) – Atlanta United FC’s dominance in its romp through the MLS Cup playoffs may have left the impression that new manager Frank de Boer has the luxury of just sticking with what has worked in the past, but De Boer has several difficult decisions to make by the end of the coming preseason. A lot of attention will be given to how he balances the team’s wealth of attacking talent, but De Boer will have tough choices to make in the back as well.
Frank de Boer has tough decisions to make with his center back hierarchy
One of the biggest questions De Boer must answer concerns how he ranks the central defenders on his roster. It seems fair to expect that 26-year-old Argentinean Leandro Gonzalez Pirez will be an automatic choice to start whenever he is fit, but things get less certain after that.
Michael Parkhurst was superb captaining the side from the back line throughout the 2018 season, but he will turn 35 before the 2019 season begins. Similarly, fellow 35-year-old Jeff Larentowicz was solid as a right-center back in a three-man back line at times during the regular season and in several playoff matches. Their steady play was essential to ATL’s championship season, but very few outfield players can survive thirty-plus starts in a season at that age.
Competing with the vets for playing time will be 21-year-old Miles Robinson, the club’s first ever pick in the MLS SuperDraft. Robinson bounced back and forth between the reserve team and the senior side last season, earning three starts in the MLS regular season and one in the playoffs. He looks the part of a big and athletic central defender, and departed coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino called him “one of our three best players tonight” in the press conference after Atlanta’s 3-1 playoff victory over NYFC in November.
What to do with Escobar and Gressel?
Franco Escobar came to Atlanta at the start of last season as a versatile defender who seemed comfortable at either center back or right back. That’s what he looked like for most of the season, sometimes playing as the right-center back in a three-man line, other times as the right-back in a four-man line.
With Martino opting for a three-man line in the post season, it seemed natural for Escobar to step in as the right-center back. But Martino surprised most observers by lining up the 23-year-old Argentinean as a right wing-back and sending him all the way up the field to serve as a target for goalkeeper Brad Guzan’s long balls.
That move forced Julian Gressel, the 2017 MLS Rookie of the Year, out of his favorite spot on the right wing and into an advanced central midfield role. The move took advantage of Gressel’s work rate and ball-winning, but it also took away opportunities to deliver the right-wing crosses to Josef Martinez that made Gressel so effective throughout the regular season.
Obviously, the moves worked out for Martino and Atlanta United, but it will be interesting to see if De Boer keeps Gressel and Escobar in those roles or if the new coach will move them back to the positions that they have played for most of their careers. This may set up a competition among Parkhurst, Robinson, and Escobar for two out of the three spots in a three-man back line.
Who will play on the left?
With Greg Garza having been traded to FC Cincinnati in December, there is no clear front runner to replace him on the left.
Garza was injured for a big chunk of the 2018 season, and several different players filled in at left back in a 4-3-3 formation and left wing-back in a 3-5-2. Mikey Ambrose was the first option when Garza went down, but Ambrose soon suffered an injury of his own, forcing veteran utility man Chris McCann to fill in.
When the 31-year-old McCann wore down and needed a rest, Martino gave fans a glimpse of 16-year-old George Bello. The young phenom started two games in 2018, scoring a goal in a 2-0 win over New England, and both Atlanta and U.S. National Team fans are eager for more from Bello.
However, Bello’s young body may not be ready for the kind of punishment he would take as a fulltime starter, and Atlanta has another young option on the left in Jose Hernandez. A 21-year-old from Venezuela, Hernandez spent almost the entirety of last season with the reserve side, making just one substitute appearance with the senior team. He was clearly below Bello in the pecking order last season, but a new coach and Bello’s extreme youth may change things this year.
If De Boer isn’t comfortable with either of his young options on the left, he might opt for newly acquired veteran winger Brek Shea. Once an up-and-comer with the U.S. National Team, Shea made just 15 starts for the Vancouver Whitecaps last season. It’s unclear how big of a role Atlanta’s front office has in mind for him.
Between Shea, McCann, Ambrose, Bello, and Hernandez, it’s unlikely that all five can get enough preseason minutes to get a real chance to impress the new coach. And De Boer could always opt to simply not play with a true left winger at all if he’s not satisfied with any of his options.
De Boer might choose a Dutch 3-4-3 formation with a natural central midfielder on the left. Darlington Nagbe has played a similar role often in his career, although he played exclusively—and extremely well—in the middle for Atlanta last season.
The pressure is on:
It’s anybody’s guess as to whether all these options will be a blessing or a curse for De Boer. What is certain is that Atlanta fans will have very high expectations for the defending MLS Cup Champions, starting with the CONCACAF Champions League.
The CCL—a competition of the top clubs from North America, Central America, and the Caribbean—starts on February 21 for Atlanta against Herediano of Costa Rica. That leaves De Boer just a month and a half to sort things out ahead of a match that a rabid fan base has been anticipating since the team secured a berth in the competition back in October.