MLS main lights Atlanta United, LAFC are struggling in 2021. How can they get again to their greatest?


The wave of growth in Main League Soccer relationship again to the 2015 season has taken the league to new heights, with worldwide manufacturers, well-known homeowners and seemingly limitless ambition driving golf equipment to spend and innovate like by no means earlier than.

That started in earnest in 2017, with the arrival of Atlanta United FC, who received MLS Cup of their second season of existence, and was additional cemented when LAFC joined the league in 2018 and received the Supporters’ Protect with a report factors haul in 2019.

But these standout sophomore seasons stay their respective high-water marks. Atlanta has been in a tailspin ever since supervisor Gerardo Martino left the membership after that MLS Cup triumph, burning via two big-name managers (Frank de Boer, Gabriel Heinze) alongside the way in which. And on the opposite aspect of the nation, the Black and Gold adopted up that record-setting Supporters’ Protect with a seventh-place end within the Western Convention, a place they lie in forward of Sunday’s journey to tackle Atlanta (4 p.m. ET, stream dwell on ESPN).

So how do these groups, who have been as soon as meant to herald a brand new period in MLS, return to glory? We requested Jeff Carlisle and Kyle Bonagura.

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Atlanta United

From the second Martino left Atlanta, the 5 Stripes have been on a gentle slide down the MLS pecking order. Granted, one may argue there’s nowhere to go however down from that lofty perch, however a cup double in 2019 gave approach to lacking the postseason altogether in 2020. The 2021 marketing campaign hasn’t yielded something higher, leaving Atlanta six factors out of the East’s seventh and closing playoff place.

Now the membership is hoping it’s coming into a brand new period. Atlanta introduced on Thursday that Seattle assistant Gonzalo Pineda will develop into Atlanta’s subsequent supervisor. On condition that that is Pineda’s first managerial appointment, it stays to be seen precisely how he’ll function, but when he wants a blueprint for what must be completed, he ought to take a look at the job that Rob Valentino did on an interim foundation.

There’s been extra of an emphasis on entertaining within the perception that it isn’t solely what Atlanta followers demand, however one that’s extra more likely to translate into outcomes. With Ezequiel Barco driving at defenses and Marcelino Moreno wanting extra comfy on the sphere than he ever has in an Atlanta shirt, the workforce’s play has been simpler on the eyes. Certain, there are some defensive shortcomings to handle, however Atlanta appears to be pointed in the best route once more, and with Luiz Araujo now becoming a member of the ranks, a playoff spot is feasible.

Pineda might want to lean on Valentino not solely by way of techniques, but in addition on the subject of managing the workforce’s personalities — ahead Josef Martinez amongst them. Nearly any supervisor will seem like working with a softer contact than the hard-line, uncompromising strategy of Heinze, however Valentino’s relationship with the gamers has been years within the making, one borne of countless video classes, resulting in a degree of belief that the long-time assistant is aware of what he is speaking about. And he is allowed the workforce to play with a degree of freedom that his two most up-to-date predecessors did not.

“He is bought the entire locker room with him,” mentioned one former Atlanta participant about Valentino. “It is not simply the English-speaking gamers. That, for me, says one thing.”

Pineda might want to tread rigorously by way of how rapidly he places his personal stamp on issues. Martino had the good thing about working with a clean canvas, however De Boer and Heinze, every in their very own means, have been an excessive amount of of a departure from what came about earlier than. Whereas each have been tactically astute, they not solely veered from the membership’s ethos, however did not join with gamers in the way in which Martino did. Martino had his personal points by way of adjusting to MLS, however he was versatile sufficient and listened to veteran gamers sufficiently to get everybody on board.

Pineda’s fame in Seattle was one the place he was each instrumental in supervisor Brian Schmetzer’s tactical strategy as nicely one who linked with gamers. If Pineda can certainly tick each the tactical and man-management bins, he may have succeeded the place De Boer and Heinze failed. — Jeff Carlisle


As LAFC struggled to match their historic 2019 kind final season, there have been loads of logical explanations. COVID-19 created a bizarre season to start with, and the pressure it positioned on gamers — significantly younger and worldwide ones — was an issue with out simple options. That wasn’t distinctive for LAFC, however it’s not possible to quantify the impression it has across the league. Stringent native coaching laws and the lack to host followers, whilst different stadiums opened up late in season, additionally performed a job.

The largest concern, although, was that star participant Carlos Vela, coming off arguably the single-greatest particular person season in league historical past, was injured an unavailable for giant stretches of the season. With Vela wholesome by the top of the 12 months, a playoff run nonetheless appeared believable till 4 key gamers — Golden Boot winner Diego Rossi, Designated Participant Brian Rodriguez, left-back Diego Palacios and midfielder Jose Cifuentes — all contracted COVID-19 on worldwide obligation in South America and have been unavailable to characteristic towards Seattle within the first spherical. LAFC misplaced 3-1.

Nonetheless, there was time to regroup for the CONCACAF Champions League. After beforehand beating Membership Leon previous to the COVID outbreak, LAFC knocked out Cruz Azul and Membership America to advance to closing, the place they fell 2-1 to Tigres.

That is quite a bit to setup why expectations for 2021 have been so excessive. When wholesome over the earlier two years, LAFC had been the very best workforce within the league. Now, 18 matches into the season, not solely have they failed to succeed in that customary, however they discover themselves on the playoff bubble.

There’s quite a bit to dissect right here, however let’s begin up entrance. Since Adama Diomande left the membership a 12 months in the past, there was a evident gap at striker. Vela, Rossi and Rodriguez — the workforce’s three DPs — are all wingers, which has by no means been a super use of these roster slots contemplating coach Bob Bradley’s most popular 4-3-3. (Rodriguez began the season on mortgage within the Spanish second division and solely not too long ago returned to the membership when Almeria didn’t get promoted). Corey Baird bought a run to start out the season, however that did not work, and Danny Musovski by no means figured to be the long-term resolution. Final month, the workforce acquired Cristian Arango from Millonares in Colombia, however it’s too early to evaluate his match.

Extra may be requested of the midfield, however there’s sufficient high quality and depth within the place group to the place basic supervisor John Thorrington felt compelled to commerce stalwart Mark-Anthony Kaye to Colorado.

The larger issues have been on the again.

Searching for options, Bradley has carried out a 5-3-2 (or 3-5-2, relying on one’s perspective) at instances, utilizing Palacios and South Korea worldwide Kim Moon-Hwan as wing-backs. There was some preliminary success in that formation, however it’s much less sustainable following the acquisition of Arango, return of Rodriguez and season-ending ACL harm to center-back Eddie Segura. Sebastian Ibeagha’s arrival from New York Metropolis FC supplies much-needed depth, however the mixture of him, Tristan Blackmon and Jesus Murillo enjoying in entrance of 20-year-old goalkeeper Tomas Romero may be very a lot an unproven experiment.

This stays one of the proficient rosters within the league and Bradley is without doubt one of the sharpest minds American soccer has ever identified, so there’s loads of purpose to permit for a turnaround. And that is the great thing about MLS: A poor first half does not imply the season is totally misplaced. — Kyle Bonagura



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