After returning to the MLS Cup Playoffs in 2021, Atlanta United will be looking to make a serious bid for success this season.
The Five Stripes supporters have higher expectations than most and will be expecting their side to challenge on all fronts in 2022.
How did Atlanta United perform in 2021?
For a long time, it looked like Atlanta would have to endure another post-season in the wilderness. That was until interim boss Rob Valentino, then later Gonzalo Pineda, took over following the departure of Gabriel Heinze.
Once the Argentine left, they averaged 1.81 points per game compared to just a single point per game prior, and lost just three of their final 18 regular-season matches.
United fell at the first hurdle in the MLS Cup Playoffs, losing 2-0 to New York City FC. Of course, NYCFC would go all the way to beat the Portland Timbers in the final, and the narrow pitch at Yankee Stadium is enough to challenge any visiting side.
Foundations were laid and there is plenty for Pineda and his staff to build on.
Atlanta United transfer activity
- Thiago Almada (from Velez Sarsfield, $16m)
- Ronald Hernandez (from Aberdeen, Undisc.)
- Bobby Shuttleworth (from Chicago Fire, free transfer)
- Osvaldo Alonso (from Minnesota United, free transfer)
- Dylan Castanheira (from Inter Miami, free transfer)
- Justin Garces (from UCLA Bruins, free transfer)
- Tristan Trager (SuperDraft)
- Daniel Bloyou (Superdraft)
- Erik Centeno (SuperDraft)
- Dom Dwyer (free transfer)
- Caleb Wiley (homegrown)
- George Bello (to Arminia Bielefeld, $2m)
- Franco Escobar (to LAFC, $600k)
- Erick Torres (to Orange County, free transfer)
- Mo Adams (to Inter Miami, free transfer)
- Alec Kann (to FC Cincinnati, free transfer)
- Anton Walkes (to Charlotte FC, Expansion Draft)
- Josh Bauer (to Nashville SC, Re-Entry Draft)
- Ezequiel Barco (to River Plate, loan)
- Ben Lundgaard (released)
- Jurgen Damm (contract buyout)
- Erik Lopez (to Banfield, loan)
Gonzalo Pineda: Tactics and style of play
Despite very different results, Pineda actually wasn't too far away from Heinze tactically last season. The Mexican almost exclusively stuck to variants of the 3-4-3, 3-5-2, and 3-4-2-1 systems in Atlanta, with three center-backs providing a solid platform on both sides of the ball, allowing the wing-backs to get forward and provide width. The main difference was Pineda allowed individual players more tactical freedom and fluidity.
However, this off-season has seen a switch to a 4-3-3 system, with a midfield pivot helping progress possession and cover defensively, while still allowing the full-backs to get forward. This is hardly surprising given Anton Walkes' departure, and we should see Miles Robinson and Alan Franco form a solid center-back pairing with George Campbell providing cover.
Still expect Atlanta United to be a possession-dominant team, but with more of an emphasis on getting the ball forward quickly to catch teams off balance and create chances for Josef Martinez. The new presence of Thiago Almada should help invigorate the attack.
Atlanta United predicted XI (4-3-3): Guzan; Lennon, Robinson, Franco, Gutman; Alonso, Sosa, Almada; Moreno, Martinez, Araujo.
Who are Atlanta United's key players?
There was plenty of caution when it came to predicting how Josef Martinez's return from an ACL injury would turn out. And sure, he had to manage his minutes at times to allow his knee to heal.
But on the whole, you have to say Josef is back! The Venezuelan hit a remarkable volley against FC Cincinnati on Decision Day to send Atlanta United into the MLS Cup Playoffs and that was his 12th goal in just 24 regular-season appearances.
With another off-season under his belt, Martinez might well be challenging for a Golden Boot again this year. At least in terms of talent, there's no questioning him.
After months of back and forth, false confirmation, and rebuttals, Thiago Almada is finally an Atlanta United player. The 20-year-old is regarded as one of the hottest prospects in Argentina right now, so even if it's only for a short while, he'll be a huge addition to his new club and MLS as a whole.
Almada will drift between the lines to pick up the ball in space, where he can feed Martinez or tear apart the opposing defense himself with his low center of gravity and dribbling. Almada has been described as a 'generational talent' by experts and if he reaches his potential in Atlanta, the rest of MLS will be running for the hills.
The Argentine talent has stated he prefers to play as a No.10, but expect plenty of fluidity between himself, Marcelino Moreno, and Luiz Araujo.
With their incredible trio of DPs (Luiz Araujo included) and Marcelino Moreno, so many eyes will be on the Atlanta United offense this year.
But no matter how good you are at one end, a successful team needs balance. The club's front office have been firm in saying Miles Robinson will be going nowhere this off-season and from a soccer standpoint, it's easy to see why.
The USMNT center-back is a ruthless one-on-one defender, able to close out space and shut down counter-attacks with incredible ease. Robinson is the perfect break-glass to allow that attacking quartet to get to work, and he's improved his ball-playing abilities tenfold over the past year for good measure.
Atlanta United 2022 season prediction
After an awful 2020 and a bad start to 2021, even just making the Playoffs last year was an achievement for the Five Stripes. A step in the right direction.
But after investing a league-record $16m on Almada and strengthening the leadership group with Osvaldo Alonso, expectations will be cranked up a notch.
Is this roster balanced and experienced enough to go all the way? Don't write them off, but probably not quite. Saying that, they have the firepower to make a deep run.
Prediction: 3rd in the Eastern Conference