TORONTO – Everything happened so quickly. Record-breaking attendances, Latin American virtuosos dizzying defenses, and hoisting the 2018 MLS Cup: Atlanta United already had substantial notoriety by the end of their second season.
So, when Gerardo “Tata” Martino concluded his tenure upon capturing the club’s first piece of silverware in December, fans were expectant. In Atlanta, patience isn’t a virtue. It was a daunting vacancy, and one seemingly not ideal for a manager whose previous two gigs lasted a combined 162 days.
But Frank de Boer took the left-field choice. Four consecutive Eredivisie titles during five-and-a-half years with Ajax had been sullied by his speed dating with Inter and Crystal Palace, and the Dutchman needed to rebuild his career.
Moving to an American club that wanted to sustain a remarkable run of success wasn’t an ideal landing spot for De Boer, but positive results in such a demanding environment could fast-track his reputation closer to what it was when he was competing for the biggest jobs in Europe.
‘Hard work, hard practice’
Once again, De Boer made radical changes at his new club.
At Inter, he was accused of trying to overload players with information over a condensed period before their competitive season began. During his 77 days in charge of Crystal Palace, he force-fed a possession-based approach to footballers whose past four managers were Tony Pulis, Neil Warnock, Alan Pardew, and Sam Allardyce. The Eagles just didn’t play that pretty stuff.
On this occasion, and despite his previous missteps, he wasn’t reluctant to fiddle with the explosive, direct, and ultimately prosperous football that was played under Martino. He was stubborn and wanted more control. The play became more methodical as Atlanta tried to dictate matches before patiently picking apart the opposition.
United began the season with only three wins from their opening 10 competitive matches, which included lopsided losses to Costa Rican minnows Herediano and Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League. There was also a memorable rain-drenched defeat at the Columbus Crew, during which Julian Gressel played the full 90 minutes.
“It’s always difficult, I think we saw that early on in the season,” Gressel, a regular for the Five Stripes since their inauguration, told theScore on Wednesday.
“Hard work, hard practice. Keep working on it and not letting go of that idea was big for us,” he continued.
Perhaps De Boer’s greatest challenge in Atlanta wasn’t to meet expectations. Instead, it was coaching his footballing principles to players without privileged schooling in Amsterdam, Barcelona, or another thriving European academy.
A Champions League-winning footballer who developed the likes of Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld at Ajax as a manager was now honing the skills of products from the Syracuse Orange and Wake Forest Demon Deacons.
“There are some youngsters that didn’t play that much at the highest level, we have to accept that,” De Boer admitted.
Picking the nucleus
However, unlike at Inter and Crystal Palace, De Boer had an excuse to make sweeping changes to the schematic in Atlanta after Miguel Almiron departed for Newcastle United. The nucleus of the direct attacking approach was gone, so the manager had to identify a new player to build his team around.
Pity Martinez was the headline capture a month after De Boer’s arrival, but the coach resisted the temptation to champion his statement arrival. The 26-year-old still needs to learn the system – he exploded down the left flank for River Plate, but his new manager prefers his most creative players to attack centrally – and his form is disappointing for someone bestowed with the 2018 South American Player of the Year award. Josef Martinez’s poaching strengths, meanwhile, are obviously there to conclude attacks instead of curate them.
That left Ezequiel Barco.
Following a season plagued by disciplinary issues and languid performances, Barco, 20, is now the man handed the same role in which Eriksen flourished under De Boer at Ajax. Contrary to the distracted performances of yesteryear, he boasts an avant-garde unpredictability, an irrepressible work rate, and a level of technique few MLS contemporaries can rival.
How many Atlanta fans last season would have predicted Barco’s absence during Argentina’s Under-20 World Cup campaign would be more damaging than Josef Martinez’s trip with Venezuela for the 2019 Copa America?
Real test awaits
There are other positive signs, too. Twenty-year-old Brandon Vazquez scored four goals in Atlanta’s past two U.S. Open Cup outings and was entrusted with his first MLS minutes of the season in the frenetic 3-2 midweek defeat to Toronto FC. He is now a viable Plan B in the frontline when Josef Martinez returns from Venezuela duty.
The player to thrive most since De Boer took over could be Miles Robinson, 22, who was a spare part under Martino. He’s forging one of the league’s stingiest backlines with Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and was a glaring omission from the MLS All-Star team.
Younger players seem to be grasping De Boer’s philosophy, and the accounts of the more experienced gaggle suggest De Boer is less dictatorial about his approach. He can soften his tactical stance to cater to his players’ strengths – an aspect that was lacking over his abbreviated regimes at Inter and Crystal Palace.
“It’s been a process where both sides, the coaching staff and us players, have made some adjustments,” Gressel revealed. “Obviously we had a rougher start, but figured it out and really work together pretty well now.”
The midweek setback in Toronto was the first of eight matches shoehorned into a 26-day duration. De Boer’s reign has gone quite well since the stuttering start, but a period during which there is little preparation time between matches will show how much of the tactician’s teachings have been taken aboard. This could be the time he proves to European football that he’s worth keeping around for longer than two-and-a-half months.