Anton Walkes' departure further erodes Atlanta United's shrinking leadership group

Walkes was almost ever-present for Atlanta United in 2021.
Walkes was almost ever-present for Atlanta United in 2021. / Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

From the moment their list of eligible players for the MLS Expansion Draft was released, Atlanta United knew they'd be losing someone.

In the end, it was Anton Walkes who joined Charlotte FC. Though, it could easily have ended up being talented back-up goalkeeper Alec Kann. Even Jake Mulraney and Emerson Hyndman, despite injury, would have been attractive options with plenty of MLS experience.

Ultimately, Walkes was the most eye-catching option. The English center-back logged the most appearances (33) and minutes (2,773) of any Atlanta United player in 2021. He was first for clearances (122), second for recoveries (215) and interceptions (71), and third for aerial duels won (60).

While Miles Robinson missed chunks of the year through international duty and Alan Franco took time to adapt to MLS, Walkes was a rock. He is good on the ball and is incredibly composed, but it was his no-nonsense, effective defending that proved so valuable to the Five Stripes.

Most of all, with Walkes' departure, Atlanta United have lost another leader.

The 24-year-old wore the captain's armband on four occasions in 2021 and was often the first to stand up and be counted when backs were against the wall. When things got particularly tough toward the end of Gabriel Heinze's reign, Walkes showed no fear in facing the media, giving an honest assessment of his own game and of the team, taking responsibility, and proving he cares.

You need only take a look at the reactions from teammates and supporters alike at Walkes' departure to realize just how much he was valued in Atlanta.

A shrinking leadership group won't come as a shock to supporters - especially given the accusations that the club lacks leadership right from the top. Over the past couple of years, through retirement, trades, and various other reasons, Atlanta have lost some huge characters.

Club captains and veterans Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz are the immediate standout names, but core players from the group that won MLS Cup in 2018 like Darlington Nagbe, Julian Gressel, and Franco Escobar are all gone, too.

Take the 37-year-old Brad Guzan out of the team and who wears the armband?

Josef Martinez is an obvious choice. A clear icon in the city who loves Atlanta United and will stand up for his players. But do you want your best goalscorer weighed down with the responsibility of being the captain? Martinez is undoubtedly at his best when off the leash.

Beyond that, we're left waiting for someone to emerge. Miles Robinson, perhaps, if he stays with Atlanta United another year. Brooks Lennon is another who was unafraid to take responsibility throughout 2021.

There will be plenty for Gonzalo Pineda, Rob Valentino, and the Atlanta United Front Office to work through this off-season. Pineda and Valentino, in particular, have earned the grace of the fans.

But the decision to leave an experienced and extremely effective center-back unprotected in the Expansion Draft is one that has hurt supporters, and might well hurt the team in 2022.