End-of-year waivers, free agency, a half-day trade window. December will be an active month for the front office at Atlanta United.
On Wednesday, the club kicked off the offseason calendar with year-end roster moves. In addition to the 21 players already under contract for 2022, the club exercised contract options on seven players, including wingbacks George Bello and Brooks Lennon.
The club also declined the contract options for five players, including striker Cubo Torres.
“We’re very proud of the players and the staff and everybody here at the club that pulled together and made a good run at the end of the season,” Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t reach our goal of getting into the championship game and competing for that this season, but we’re really excited for next year.”
The moves mark the end of the 2021 season and the start of an offseason calendar that runs through mid-January when the team returns to the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground for preseason workouts. During that time, Atlanta United’s personnel department may make more moves, whether it be via the half-day trade window on Dec. 12, end-of-year waivers, the mulit-stage re-entry draft or free agency.
For the front office, the approach for building the 2022 roster is twofold. First, honing in on the young, talented core that led the team through a second half turnaround in 2021. Then, adding veteran pieces to supplement that.
“We get to keep most of our group together,” Bocanegra said. “We’ve got the ability to keep the core group intact and build upon a really good second half of the season and a really good mentality leading into the preseason next year.”
That group showed flashes of greatness during the second half of the season. From Aug. 12, the day that Pineda was hired, to the end of the regular season, the team won 10 matches. The 33-point total it earned during that stretch was tied for most in MLS.
The late-season push qualified the team for its fourth playoff berth in five seasons. The club finished fifth in the Eastern Conference standings, just three points away from landing in the conference’s top four.
“I’m very happy with the players I have,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. “I think it’s a very complete squad, in general. You never can expect to be perfect and have every little position covered 100 percent. There’s always issues with certain positions, that’s normal in football. But I can tell you that I’m more than happy with what I have now.”
Despite the second-half push, Atlanta United lost in Round One of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs, a finish the team wants to improve on in 2022. And there were times during the regular season when the club struggled to play cohesively or preserve a lead late in games.
When it comes to discussing the areas where the team can improve – whether it’s the style of play, the ethos of the club, what players Pineda would like to have on his bench or even tactical decisions – Bocanegra and Pineda collaborate closely with each other.
“We talk a lot about all those variables,” Pineda said. “Young, development players, veteran players… All the different situations in roster movement, I think we discuss very openly.”
One of the bright spots for Atlanta United on the pitch this season was Ezequiel Barco. The midfielder came into form in 2021 after playing with Argentina’s men’s national team earlier in the year at the Tokyo Olympics. He returned to the club with renewed confidence, recording career bests in goals (7) and assists (6), and was named MLS Team of the Week six times in 2021.
But whether Barco is part of the core that remains in 2022 is still unclear. The 22-year-old midfielder is under contract with Atlanta United but has expressed interest in playing in Europe.
“We believe he has the ability to make that move,” Bocanegra said. “So that’s something that will be determined this offseason, but nothing is set in stone yet.”
The club has received multiple inquiries for Bello. His ability to play on the left side makes the Homegrown defender a valuable prospect, and the robust experience he's gained starting for Atlanta United and appearing with the U.S. men’s national team, at just 19 years old, is garnering intrigue from teams in other leagues.
“Again, he’ll be a tough decision for us in the offseason,” Bocanegra said. “Like quite a few of these other guys that we have.”
The team also exercised options for Franco Escobar, the defender returning from loan at Newell’s Old Boys in his home nation of Argentina. Like Barco, Escobar is under contract with Atlanta for the next year. However, given the depth and competition on the backline, the final answer for Escobar in 2022 is also unclear.
Given the news on Wednesday, Atlanta United may also need to add a goalkeeper. Among the five options declined, two were backup goalkeepers Alec Kann and Ben Lundgaard, which leaves Brad Guzan as the only keeper on the roster. Although Kann’s option was declined, Bocanegra said that the club is still in discussions with him.
“We’ve got to make some tough decisions before we start the season at the end of February,” Bocanegra said.
The key for Atlanta United’s offseason movement will be adding experience. Bocanegra said he’s looking specifically into adding a veteran or two to the roster.
Even with all its talent, Atlanta United struggled with consistency at times in 2021. At various points during the season, Pineda stressed the team’s need to learn how to manage the moment, especially once the team gained some confidence and won games.
“We need some of those guys to help with just that understanding of how seasons go, the ups and downs, the tough parts,” Bocanegra said. “Now, our group this year will have this whole experience together and have a better understanding. And then, if we can add maybe one or two that really do understand and have been through multiple times, I think that can be a real benefit to our club and the squad.”
Both Pineda and Bocanegra are happy with the players currently on the roster and believe in the team’s quality. They both see a young team with a lot of fight. They both want to put players in the best positions to be successful.
Adding a leadership element could be the key to raising the team’s ceiling.
That’s where the offseason comes in to play. Using free agency, Atlanta United could add a league veteran. Adding a player with MLS experience could help a young team understand game management and complement the team’s youth and hunger.
“I think if we’re able to do those two things, be more offensive, be more aggressive, be more clinical in the final third, having more numbers, but also experience enough to close down games and make sure that we get the result we want, I think we’re going to be a very good team next year,” Pineda said.
When it comes to any additions the club makes this offseason, Bocanegra has the player profile he instituted at the club. It’s been the touchstone of his scouting and technical direction, and it’s the type of player that Pineda enjoys coaching as well. Players who can play on the front foot, attack, dominate – players who are exciting to watch.
“That’s what we all enjoy, to see a team that is always trying to attack, trying to penetrate lines at pace,” Pineda said.
“We’re talking about being on that front foot, being exciting, being high intensity, being an enjoyable experience for the fans to watch in the stadium and on TV,” Bocanegra said.