On Friday, Atlanta United released the club’s roster moves ahead of the 2024 season. The club declined the options on five players. Six more are out of contract, which leaves 18 players currently on the roster ahead of 2024. And there are still some notable names up in the air. The futures of veteran goalkeeper Brad Guzan and stalwart center back Miles Robinson are yet to be determined.
To address this year’s roster moves, and forecast how the club will approach the offseason, vice president and technical director Carlos Bocanegra met with members of the media over Zoom Friday morning. Here are a few of the main points from the availability session:
One of the biggest questions heading into Atlanta United’s offseason is what will happen to Thiago Almada. The young midfielder, who won the FIFA World Cup with Argentina last year and broke the club’s single-season assist record September 16 against Inter Miami, has quickly risen to become one of the league’s bright young stars. In 2023, he was an MLS All-Star, put his technical skills on display in the All-Star Skills Challenge, and was named the 2023 MLS Young Player of the Year. Almada's status has risen on the domestic and global stages, so it seems like only a matter of time until he makes the move to play in one of the top leagues in Europe.
According to Bocanegra, the club’s plan is to bring Almada back for 2024. The technical director said that the transfer window can sometimes change things and bring forth discussions. But with the abilities Almada has brought to MLS, there’s a reason why Atlanta United can be patient and wait for the right deal to come along.
“It’s amazing you have a player who won the World Cup for Argentina playing in MLS,” Bocanegra said. “That’s amazing for this league. It shows where we’ve come. It’s a place where players don’t want to only stay for a year, then move on. They’re willing to stay for two, three, four, five years. It’s a destination.”
That being said, Bocanegra said that MLS is still not one of the five best in the world – those are in Europe, and Almada has said in the past that it's his dream to play there. If top clubs from Europe, the English Premier League for example, come for Almada, Bocanegra said that it will come down to discussions with the player together on what they want.
“When we went down to recruit him in Argentina, my message to him was to come here and use this as a building block and continue to build your profile, which he has done, continue to play well and mark yourself on this league, which he has done,” Bocanegra said. “When that time comes, and he would also like to make that transfer, we’ll sit down and speak together on that because it’s a decision that needs to have both parties involved and everybody feeling good about it.”
The goalkeeper situation and Brad Guzan
One of the most glaring holes on the Atlanta United roster is at goalkeeper. The option for goalkeeper Clément Diop was declined and goalkeeper Quentin Westberg is out of contract, which leaves just one keeper, 39-year-old Brad Guzan, on the roster.
Guzan is still under contract with Atlanta, but after the Columbus match on November 12, he told the media that he would talk with his family about what his next step would be. The veteran captain returned this season after suffering an injury to his Achilles tendon. This year, Atlanta United finished last in the league in save percentage and conceded 53 goals.
Bocanegra confirmed that Guzan is with his family right now and decisions will be made in the coming months. He added that he’d like to bring in some goalkeepers for more competition at the position, regardless of what Guzan decides about his future.
“He’s been amazing for us since he came in here,” Bocanegra said. “His leadership, his presence, you guys know what he means to this club. So really just want to understand where Brad is at the moment and have those discussions with him. Maybe we’ll have some updates by the end of the year, but really it’s just about listening to Brad. Everybody was frustrated after the last game and disappointed. So we’ll let the emotions cool down and have some conversations when we can be intelligent with our thoughts.”
The contract is up for Miles Robinson, the 26-year-old who’s been with the club since 2017 when he was selected No. 2 overall in the MLS SuperDraft. The club has extended a new offer to the center back, but he’s yet to agree.
“The contract is there,” Bocanegra said. “So, it’s really just a decision from Miles.”
Robinson, who played over 2300 minutes this year after rupturing his Achilles last season, left for international duty directly from Atlanta’s last playoff match in Columbus. He joins the U.S. men’s national team, and was a substitute not used in the 3-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago on November 16, so the two sides have yet to catch up, but plan on doing so soon.
“We have an internal timeline that we have for that decision,” Bocanegra said. “But I don’t know where Miles is on that aspect right now, so I want to make sure that we can have a chat first to understand where both sides are.”
What to expect in 2024 for Atlanta United
The goal for Atlanta United is to finish in fourth place or better in the Eastern Conference. Finishing the regular season in one of those top spots will give the 5-Stripes favorable home field advantage in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Although Atlanta United was in contention to reach that goal this year, the 5-Stripes finished No. 6 in the conference and eventually lost to No. 3 Columbus Crew in the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
“The goal is to always finish in top-four,” Bocanegra said. “We always want to contend for the Supporters’ Shield and that’s something to win the championship, so that’s always a goal of ours and something we should strive to.”
“Finishing in the top four is the goal, but obviously we want to win championships and Supporters’ Shield,” Bocanegra added. “We’re still a club that wants to compete for championships.”
After the 4-2 playoff loss to Columbus that ended Atlanta United’s season, head coach Gonzalo Pineda seemed encouraged that the long-term goals for the club remain intact. In his postgame press conference, the head coach said that the club isn’t far off from reaching their goals and making a deeper run in the playoffs. In response on Friday, Bocanegra agreed with Pineda’s statement that, although maybe not as consistent as this year’s conference leaders FC Cincinnati and St. Louis CITY, returning to the top of the conference is within reach for Atlanta on the club’s current trajectory.
“You see with the home games and how important that is for us, that is why that’s one of the major goals for us to finish in the top four,” Bocanegra said. “We have such an amazing place to play at [Mercedes-Benz Stadium] and how we play there.”
The flip side of that, according to Bocanegra, is that the club has struggled to play well on the road. In 2023, the club was 3-6-8 (W-L-D) on the road, compared to 10-3-4 at home. That discrepancy will be one of the areas addressed heading into next season.
“We feel good about the core of the group,” he said. “There’s always going to be some turnover each year, but we feel good about GG, Thiago, Tristan [Muyumba], [Luis] Abram, these guys down the spine that have been here.”
The team was productive in the attack, scoring 66 goals, which ranks second in the league behind only Columbus Crew. However, Bocanegra said that the team needs improvement on the defensive side. Regardless of Robinson's decision, he wants to add competition to the center defender role and add a ball-winner in the defensive midfield.
“As you look across the team, you can talk about personnel, you can talk about how we’re playing, but we have to find a better balance and that’s something we’re going to be digging into even more and having more conversations about that to address,” Bocanegra says. “We still want to be on that front foot and scoring goals, but we have to find that balance.”
The pathway continues
The roster announcement Friday included three players moving up from Atlanta United 2 and the Academy: Nick Firmino, Luke Brennan and Adyn Torres.
Supporters got a peak of what Firmino can do. The attacker, along with Brennan, was brought up to the first team on a short-term agreement in June ahead of the home match against New York City FC, and the move paid off. Firmino scored the late equalizer in second-half stoppage time to save a point in the 2-2 draw against New York City FC.
Luke Brennan signed an MLS NEXT Pro contract for the 2023 season in March and is set to become an Atlanta United Homegrown player effective Jan. 1, 2024. Brennan also made his MLS debut in the June 21 match against NYCFC.
Adyn Torres is a 15-year-old, talented young midfielder and an Atlanta native. He joined the Atlanta United Academy in 2020 from Gwinnett Soccer Academy and was named to the U-15 Best XI Team at the 2022 Generation adidas Cup last June where he helped Atlanta’s U-15s advance to the semifinals.
“I was really happy with the Academy production this year,” Bocanegra said. “When we’re talking about continuity and we’re able to bleed some of these kids in, so to speak, we had the ninth highest minutes in MLS out of our Academy plus 15 goal contributions out of our Academy this year, which was tied for second in MLS. We’re really proud about that and the pipeline that our Academy is producing. That should help with that continuity that we have guys that know Atlanta United, that come through our system, they understand our style of play and what it means to be here and part of the culture, so that’s only going to help us and we’re very pleased with how that’s coming along.”