Atlanta United's early MLS success now a distant memory

Atlanta United's Luiz Araújo (19) and Toronto FC's Jayden Nelson (11) go for the ball in the first half of an MLS soccer match on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Bob Andres)

Atlanta United quickly established itself as one of Major League Soccer’s flagship franchises.

That’s why the last three seasons have been such a downer.

United appears to be starting over — though coach Gonzalo Pineda and technical director Carlos Bocanegra attempted to paint a much more optimistic picture Tuesday — after missing the playoffs for the second time in three years.

An injury-plagued season ended this past weekend with a 2-1 loss to New York City FC, leaving Atlanta with an 11th-place finish in the Eastern Conference, eight points below the playoff line.

“We’re always looking to compete for trophies and for sure to make the playoffs,” Bocanegra said. “In the end, it was a disappointing season for us.”

Further clouding the team’s future: a new president must be hired to replace Darren Eales, which could impact Bocanegra’s job security, and face of the franchise Josef Martinez endured a contentious season in which he was removed from the starting lineup by Pineda and suspended for a week for conduct detrimental to the team.

Pineda insisted there’s still a chance to patch things up with Martinez, who was the league’s MVP in 2018 but hasn’t been able to click with the current coaching staff.

“Once you change the role of a big player like Josef, it has a little bit of an impact on his mood,” Pineda said. “I can understand that. I would not expect any less from a competitive player like Josef to be upset at not being a starter.”

United has drawn record crowds since entering MLS, and it was more of the same in 2022 with a league-leading average of 47,116 — more than double all but the next five teams on the list.

But there appeared to be more no-shows at Mercedes-Benz Stadium than in previous seasons, and fan support is likely to erode even further if the club fails to recapture its early success — which included a league championship in just its second MLS season.

Pineda said he is confident that Atlanta will turn things around in 2023.

Even in its depleted state, the club showed plenty of potential in the middle of the field. But there weren’t nearly enough quality scorers to finish things off, and United was prone to sloppy defensive breakdowns when the other team threatened.

“We’re going to prove next year we’re a very good team,” Pineda predicted. “With a healthy squad, we can achieve many things.”

There is little doubt United was affected by a devastating string of season-ending injuries that took out goalkeeper and captain Brad Guzan, star defender Miles Robinson and midfielder Ozzie Alonso.

Robinson was likely to be part of the U.S. World Cup team before an Achilles injury.

“We clearly suffered a lot this year. There were a lot of things that were out of our control,” Pineda said. “But I think the right pieces are there to create something special next year. If I didn’t believe that, I would probably quit.”

United made the playoffs in its very first season after entering MLS as an expansion team in 2017, and followed up with an MLS Cup championship in Year 2. The third season was a bit rockier, but Atlanta still managed to reach the conference final and capture both the U.S. Open Cup and the Campeones Cup.

Three cups in three years. Not too shabby.

But United hasn’t come close to matching that success in the past three seasons. The pandemic-marred 2020 campaign was a total washout — Martinez went down with a season-ending knee injury in the league opener and the club finished with just six wins in 23 matches.

Last season, Atlanta managed to make a one-and-done appearance in the playoffs despite going through three coaches.

Now, United will be watching another postseason from afar.

Pineda, who received a rousing endorsement from Bocanegra, essentially guaranteed that it won’t happen again.

“We’ll do whatever we can in 2023,” the coach said, “to bring a lot of glory to this club.”

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