Gabriel Heinze is extremely rough around the edges, anyone who has followed his career can tell you that. As a coach, the Argentine has had a bad history with the press and has been dubbed as obsessive and a reclusive person in his day-to-day management of his teams. You’d figure that upper management would have researched that before signing him to the club, yet it all came as a surprise in the last few weeks some of the things coming out of the Atlanta United camp.
For one thing, as reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the MLS Players Association had filed grievances to MLS on behalf of the Atlanta United players for violations of the CBA in regard to training. The infractions were excess in training hours ahead of the season opener and on various occasions after that. Intense regimens that had little to no breaks, and not enough days off in between those sessions. Tata Martino was known to have had intense training when he oversaw the club, but it was overlooked since the club was on a winning track.
In the end what did Heinze in was a lukewarm start, where he recorded 2 wins, 4 losses, and 7 draws in MLS, while getting to the quarter finals of the Concacaf Champions League earlier this year. Atlanta United was eliminated by the much more polished Philadelphia Union in a 4-1 aggregate after two games. The much-publicized battle of wills between Heinze and Josef Martínez was icing on the cake as Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra seemed to be left with no choice and pulled the plug on a project that lasted a little over 200 days. Now the question is, what’s next for Atlanta United?
The search for yet another coach
On Sunday in a rushed press conference to announce the reasons for Heinze’s departure, Darren Eales found himself saying something he has become used to in Atlanta, “I want to be clear as well we want to get the right person.” This time fans, who met Heinze’s removal with relief, were also quick to hit back at management for not taking accountability for certain club decisions that go beyond Gabriel Heinze.
Eales stated that Atlanta United will move quickly in their search for a new coach, but who is that coach? If anything, up until this point Atlanta United have been high profile, Gerardo "Tata" Martino, Frank de Boer, and Gabriel Heinze may have had different approaches, but they all had name value. The question now remains as to who the candidate should be moving forward.
If Atlanta United goes South American again, the well may have run dry. At the moment, the top tier coaches are embedded in their jobs, Marcelo Gallardo and Hernan Crespo to name a few are not moving anywhere. If the coach is an established European coach, what does that mean for the current group of players that Atlanta United have spent a considerable amount of money for? Top tier coaches from Europe usually like to put their stamp on things and will surely want the club to spend, it might find upper management once again loaning and selling to make way for a new coaches’ ideas.
Going American would be an incredible gamble for a fanbase used to star power, and if it doesn’t work that fanbase would almost certainly turn its ammunition on Eales and Bocanegra. After The Athletic’s damning report on Carlos Bocanegra and his poor relationship with Tata Martino, fans have raised a lot of eyebrows towards Bocanegra who has been singled out as the Front Office’s loose end. Adding insult to injury was how Bocanegra handled the interview process with now Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa, one where Bielsa had spent time telling Bocanegra about the approach he would take if given the Atlanta United job, a job that went to Tata Martino. Bocanegra and Eales made sure to tell Bielsa that the club's first coaching hire needed the blessing of owner Arthur Blank, Bielsa understood but expected an answer. He never got one and as a result had one of his assistants send word that Atlanta United never contact him again.
Whoever takes over the reins of Atlanta United, it will be Bocanegra and Eales who will be held completely accountable for whatever the results will be. Just how much will fans take Bocanegra and Eales at their word that they have done their proper due diligence this time? In Heinze’s case it was public knowledge that he was an intense coach and poor spokesman, often having hour-long fights with the media in Argentina at Velez and Argentinos Juniors. A source at Velez Sarsfield confirmed to Bolavip that “Heinze would lock himself in his office, work like mad, but when it came time to do media, he was totally against it. He hated speaking to the press. It was never an easy situation.” In one training session Heinze threw out midfielder Santiago Caseres for “not paying attention”. Mauro Zarate, a Velez legend, also had a falling out with Heinze, much like Martinez, and fans took the side of the forward despite showing respect for Heinze. In Heinze's defense, he never once spoke badly about his players at Atlanta United or threw them under the bus, he shouldered the blame and showed commitment to the players he placed on the field.
Just how much Bocanegra and Eales knew about that side of Heinze is now up in the air. And just how much Heinze may have known about MLS rules and CBA is also up in the air and falls on Eales and Bocanegra. Earlier this season Heinze was upset in a press conference about the fact that he could not bring up players from the team's second team to the first team as he wished, something common in South America amid player injuries or players in poor form.
One thing is for certain the next coach of Atlanta United, if outside the MLS system, will need to see Bocanegra as a partner and Bocanegra this time must learn to not overstep his boundaries, something he did not do when Martino was in charge.
The lunatics are running the asylum
While Josef Martínez may have won this round, the Venezuelan forward has had a history of run ins with his coaches. The “me or him” stance was an eye raiser, but not an isolated incident. Martínez even had a riff with Tata Martino, but on a winning team, it was overlooked. Josef Martínez is a main piece of Atlanta United and the club's next coach needs to be sold on a player that can clearly sway the locker room.
Then what is left behind in the wake of Heinze’s departure is many unanswered questions. Ezequiel Barco has never lived up to his expectations, and along with Pity Martinez are two of the biggest flops in the history of MLS in terms of return of investment. Barco has shown flashes of his brilliance but never became a leader and had locker room issues under Martino. To make matters worse it was reported that Martino never wanted Barco in the first place but was overruled by upper management. The brass saw Barco as a player the club can move on at a higher value, now the Summer Olympics is the clubs last best bet that Barco can find a possible big-time suitor, given that his Atlanta United portfolio is wanting.
Marcelino Moreno, another big time signing at a reported $7 million, has begun to quietly find his footing, but he has not taken the league by storm and has not adequately replaced Miguel Almirón, who is badly missed by the club nearly three years later. Alan Franco is a DP defender and on a five-year-deal, a rarity in MLS, one of the few signings by Heinze that could survive the managerial change or be the first player jettisoned in search of opening up an all-important DP spot.
Atlanta United fell victim to salary cap constraints in the last few years but certain players that were considered fan favorites went on to other clubs and could still have been useful to the club had they reached an agreement. The cases of Julian Gressel, Héctor Villalba, and Franco Escobar come to mind as to why the club did not move enough pieces to keep them. Santiago Sosa has been the only true successful singing in the post Tata Martino era. Still a group of players that include Brad Guzan, Josef Martínez, Ezequiel Barco, Miles Robinson, and Brooks Lennon will need to go through yet another coaching change and new set of ideas.
Learning from the mistakes
Like any new franchise, you learn from your mistakes, and clearly Atlanta United have made them. From Bocanegra’s constant interference with Tata Martino, to buying players if only to generate a buzz, like Barco, to going in a completely different direction like, Frank de Boer. A club that achieved great success out the gate is now paying their dues that many other teams go through. It is how upper management adjusts to this will be the key, and right now they are failing miserably.
On paper Bocanegra and Eales can be forgiven for Frank de Boer, it was only logical that the club find a coach that could speak English more fluently. One thing that stuck out as a pet peeve from the Martino era, was that some of the English-speaking players felt left out of certain things that seem to flow more with the Spanish speaking stars. de Boer was a gamble that failed. Heinze’s failure is more of a fool me twice situation, upper management should have known better.
For now, Atlanta United is at a crossroads, a club in jeopardy of losing the strong ground they achieved when they started. For now, in two seasons the amazing story that was MLS Cup 2018 has paved the way for a nightmare year and a half. Stuck with players who are on long term deals, and no closer to selling them abroad, as was the club's desire from its inception. A club that has a talented roster but lacks the right leadership on the bench to properly adjust his ideas to that talent. A star player that now knows if he pushes the right buttons, he can scramble the masses.
For Atlanta United it’s back to the drawing board, a board that could have different artists this time next year if results stay as they are.