Atlanta United trained amidst a blustery morning at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground on Tuesday. While we got appearances from Brad Guzan and Giorgos Giakoumakis, both of whom have been out with injuries and were training individually, the main event was Carlos Bocanegra. Atlanta United’s vice president and technical director took questions from media as the team participated in what sounded like a very competitive small-sided game just 10 yards away.
So without too much preamble, we’ll jump right to it. Here are a few things Bocanegra had to say:
Closing out the primary transfer window
The primary transfer window closed last week. April 24 was the last date Atlanta United could request the International Transfer Certificate (ITC) of a player under contract in another country – or make a trade with another MLS club.
To mark the close of this transfer window, which officially opened on Tuesday, Jan. 31, Bocanegra recapped the window as a whole for the club.
“We had a plan in place from last October at the end of the season that we were looking to execute on, and we feel pretty good about what we’re able to accomplish in the offseason and put a team on the field this year that’s competitive,” he said.
That plan involved adding new players like Giakoumakis, Derrick Etienne Jr., Luis Abram, and backup goalkeepers Quentin Westberg and Clément Diop, all of whom have appeared and contributed to Atlanta United this season. Giakoumakis, named the best designated player signing during the MLS transfer window by The Athletic, has scored in every MLS match that he's started in. Diop, who's made two consecutive starts for the club, matched a career-high of eight saves in the game against Memphis 901 FC on April 26.
Getting players back from long-term injuries was also part of the offseason plan. Bocanegra cited Guzan and Miles Robinson as players who gave the team a boost with their return, helping Atlanta United have its best six-match start in club history. And although Guzan is sidelined at the moment with an MCL injury, and the team has lost two consecutive matches, Bocanegra is happy with where the team is at 10 games into the MLS season.
“So while it’s early, we feel good and we feel confident,” he said. “We haven’t been maybe as consistent as we’d like to be so far, but we’re still getting in a groove. I think the nice thing for us is we haven’t had to have too many different changes to our lineup. We’ve been able to keep a little bit more consistency and so we’ll build on that.”
Thiago Almada and Miles Robinson
Players who Bocanegra probably received the most questions about are two guys who’ve had a great start for the 5-Stripes in 2023: midfielder Thiago Almada and center back Miles Robinson.
Almada is having a stellar season thus far, one that has put him at the top of some early lists for the MVP race. The 22-year-old scored the first two goals of the season for Atlanta United, a pair in second-half stoppage time that secured three points in the home opener, and was named MLS Player of the Month for February/March.
And Almada’s influence goes beyond MLS. As a member of the Argentina men’s national team, he was the first active MLS player to win the FIFA World Cup. He’s gained recognition globally and even earned praise from one of the most famous soccer players in the world, Lionel Messi. A player of Almada’s caliber is likely to get noticed by European clubs. On that front, Bocanegra said that it’ll be a collaborative process between the club and Almada if the right offer comes through.
“Thiago’s been good,” Bocanegra said. “You can imagine the interest he gets as well, the spotlight that’s around him. And you see his quality on the field, right? So it’s not going to be anything new. We’ve dealt with this situation, fortunately, at the club before him. But ultimately, it’ll be collaborative with the kid, with the club. Does it make sense for all parties? When does that time come? So, that’s how we’re addressing it. We’d love to win a championship this year, and we really want Thiago to be a part of that.”
Meanwhile, Robinson has also had a strong start to the season after making his way back from a ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered in 2022. The injury knocked Robinson out of the bulk of Atlanta United’s season and from appearing in the FIFA World Cup with the U.S. men’s national team.
But Robinson came back to the pitch arguably better than ever, proving that, as Bocanegra puts it, he’s one of the best defenders in the league. However, Bocanegra added that there are some limitations with roster flexibility that make it challenging to build the team. Robinson hasn’t signed the contract extension offered to him last year, but Bocanegra confirmed there’s been a good, open dialogue between the two sides.
“He’s a great kid,” Bocanegra said. “I think one of the cool things is Miles has really become a face of Atlanta. The city’s adopted him and he’s really stepped into that role and really vibes well with the city and our club. So, we’d love to see him for the long term here and continue to be one of the faces of our franchise.”
So far in the 2023 season, Atlanta United has had a lot of rotation in the midfield. Santiago Sosa, Matheus Rossetto, Amar Sejdić and Franco Ibarra have all made starts at various points and logged significant minutes.
While those four have given Atlanta United depth, there’s a certain lack of experience with such a young midfield group. When Bocanegra was asked about the spine of the team, he said that they’re looking at a few different positions where they could make upgrades during the summer transfer window, which opens July 5 and runs through August 2. He also added that there’s plenty of time until then to evaluate.
“You see some of the rosters around the league and how they operate. So again, it’s finding the balance,” Bocanegra said. “We also want to be an exciting, high-flying team, and finding that balance of guys that can run and get around the pitch. Plus, experience and a little youthfulness doesn’t hurt either. So we’re always trying to find the balance.”
One of those midfielders also spoke to the media on Tuesday. Rossetto, who's started the past three MLS matches for Atlanta United, took over the media scrum not long after Bocanegra. Rossetto played a key role in the team's lone goal on Saturday in the 3-1 loss to Nashville. He drew the foul inside the box that led to Almada’s first converted penalty kick in MLS.
Given the rotation the midfield has gone through this season, Rossetto feels confident in whatever pair is playing. The 26-year-old from Santo Amaro da Imperatriz, Brazil said that, no matter who gets the start, the group’s focus remains on putting in the work.
“I think we just have to pay more attention to those little details and work on correcting things,” Rossetto said. “But I think against Nashville, I think we played well. Nashville also played well and they knew how to manage the game. But really, I think the team has played well. It’s just about fixing those details.”