Ultimately, sports are result-driven. There’s no ambiguity, or so it goes.
Except success, on a macro sense, isn’t binary. FC Dallas finishing in sixth place this season and making the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs is a success given their circumstance; If LAFC had done the same, it wouldn’t have been quite as well received. Life is all about managing expectations, after all. Every game offers a micro success/failure dichotomy, but the season as a whole isn’t quite as simple. And it doesn’t happen over 90 minutes.
That (surprisingly brief) preamble brings us to the question at hand: Has it been a successful first season for Frank de Boer with Atlanta United? Well, it’s complicated.
De Boer, one of the Netherlands’ best-ever players, came to Atlanta after mixed results in his first three managerial gigs. He had resounding success with Ajax but not quite the same in short stints with Inter Milan and Crystal Palace. He had a tough act to follow after Tata Martino left the club with MLS Cup as his lasting memory. You never want to be the guy after The Guy.
Despite taking over the reigning champs with the reigning Landon Donovan MLS MVP, the job wasn’t an uncomplicated one.
Atlanta started slow, failing to reach their pyrotechnic heights of 2018 led by Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez. Pity Martinez didn’t quite settle in quickly and was unable to reach Almiron’s MVP-finalist form as his replacement. Meanwhi Ezequiel Barco‘s growth didn’t get a great chance to consistently manifest itself in an Atlanta kit, with the U-20 World Cup as well as a few injuries along the way.
The team didn’t make a deep Concacaf Champions League run as hoped, but it didn’t metastasize and spoil the season in the same way as complications from the competition has, in part, hampered Toronto FC in 2018 then Sporting KC this year. The continental adventure left De Boer with a shortened preseason and limited meaningful training sessions at the beginning of the season, too.
Often he urged fans to allow some time to pass before arriving at judgments. Installing a new system, from a new coach, takes time.
After the slow start, Atlanta began to find their groove after a pair of formation changes. From essentially a back five at the season’s start, to a traditional back four, then a more aggressive back three, the club were beginning to stretch into their vast potential.
Atlanta began to excel back on the front foot, satiating both players and fans alike. It came just in time, accentuating the club’s U.S. Open Cup run, culminating with a 2-1 triumph in the final over Minnesota United, as well as a Campeones Cup victory, beating Mexican giants Tigres. It wasn’t the CCL, but it was a trophy both the MLS champs and Liga MX’s best sought to win.
All the while, breakout star Miles Robinson anchored the team defense as he went from a backup on his club to a national team-level defender. Darlington Nagbe had one of his best seasons in the league under De Boer. He helped turn winger Justin Meram into a solid left wingback, another player benefitting from a change of scenery and a new coaching staff.
A season which has delivered two trophies (so far), second place in the Eastern Conference in a season which saw Almiron depart and Barco often unavailable, sounds quite good. It’s not the whole story, though.
For all the club’s perceived defensive improvements, the team only conceded one fewer goal in 2019 than 2018. There were some publicly aired frustrations, from Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and others around the All-Star Game. There was the frustration of Pity Martinez, which was also very public. Atlanta gained 11 fewer regular-season points in 2019 than last year.
After Atlanta began to hit top form, they played themselves within a chance to pull back toward the top slot in the conference again. Instead, they capitulated at Yankee Stadium against NYCFC for a thoroughly disheartening 4-1 loss. Brad Guzan gave voice to the club’s mentality, citing their lack of points gained from losing positions (2), which was only better than FC Cincinnati in the league. The teams directly above, NYCFC (25), and below, Philadelphia (18) were two of the top four teams in that stat.
Where does all that leave De Boer’s debut season on the Atlanta United bench? Through the regular season, as well as three cup competitions, the verdict is still out.
The playoff run will have a huge say in de Boer’s season, given this club strives for MLS Cup every season, however unfair it may be to pin a good portion of success/failure to the small sample size crapshoot that is a single-elimination playoff format. But, hey, the game is the game.
One thing is binary; Atlanta United are about winning trophies. De Boer already has two and is eyeing a third.