Atlanta United set records in its first season as an MLS expansion team in 2017, then captured the 2018 MLS Cup. But Atlanta has not won a league match this season (0-2-2) and is in last place in the Eastern Conference going into Saturday’s game against the Revolution.
Coach Frank de Boer’s tactical moves have failed to pay off, and South American Player of the Year Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez has struggled to fit in with the Red & Black. And Atlanta United seems to be veering from the direction set by Tata Martino, who departed to coach the Mexican national team.
“We still have the quality,” Atlanta midfielder Julian Gressel said this week. “New coach, new systems, new ideas behind everything, new culture. It’s an adjustment on our end, we’re all going through that.
“The schedule at the beginning wasn’t the most favorable, and we’ve had some poor performances and haven’t gotten results, but we hope to go to New England and get our first win in MLS.
“We definitely believe we can come back and how far we take it, in the end, is up to us. You have to get that hot streak at the right time. We have to get back to being that team we were the last two years, and we’ve taken some of the right steps.”
Gressel (Providence College) is part of Atlanta’s New England contingent, which includes former Revolution stars Jeff Larentowicz and Michael Parkhurst, plus defender Miles Robinson (Arlington) and assistant coach and former Revolution defender Rob Valentino. It extends off the field to owner Arthur Blank (Babson College) and team president Darren Eales, a 1992 All-Ivy League forward at Brown.
Gressel began his career in Bavaria, then received offers to move to the US in 2013. He opted for Providence over Florida International University and four years later became Atlanta’s first-round draft choice.
“The first time I went to an MLS game, it was a Revolution game, my sophomore year,” Gressel said. “I was close to them for 3½ years, and you definitely think about [playing for the Revolution]. But I also knew in the draft you can go anywhere, so I was open-minded about it and just hoped the team that takes me believes in me. And that’s what happened in Atlanta.”
Gressel became established among MLS’s most effective right wingers, but also displayed versatility by filling in as a holding midfielder in Atlanta’s first two seasons. Gressel was slowed by an ankle injury this season, but scored twice in a Champions League series against CS Herediano and has assisted on both of Atlanta’s league goals this season.
“I played quite a few positions at Providence,” Gressel said. “I started as a right winger, then played as a forward. It goes back to being able to be coached and having the right mind-set. I’m open to anything the coaches tell me to do.
“It kind of goes back to me being a player who can adapt to styles. It’s being open-minded, being smart about how you play as a team. Tata was a great coach and I learned so much from him.”
Martino made effective adjustments last season as Atlanta recovered from late-season losses to the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC, then eliminated New York City FC and the Red Bulls before taking a 2-0 victory over the Portland Timbers in the final before a record crowd of 73,019.
“We put in a lot of work and we came into last year with the clear mind-set of being champions,” Gressel said. “We knew we had the quality and we could do it if we all pulled in the same direction.
“The season ended not the way we wanted it to in Toronto. But if we win that game, we might not win the MLS Cup. It happened at the right time to get us going into the playoffs.”
In recent weeks, the use of promotion/relegation has been credited with boosting the popularity of the Premier League in the US and the absence of it blamed for a lack of motivation among MLS players.
As MLS continues to expand, the quality of play tends toward mediocrity and TV ratings lag. The league will likely have to consider instituting pro/rel as its best hope of stimulating improvement and interest.
“I think we’re ready for it, and should be encouraging the powers that be to figure out a road map to get there,” said NBC Sports analyst and US Soccer presidential candidate Kyle Martino. “We need to take this great game and give it that unique characteristic that makes it stick out in a crowded sporting [scene].”
Martino was speaking after a Premier League Fan Fast attracted more than 12,000 fans outside Fenway Park on the weekend of March 30-31. The announced attendance for the Revolution’s 2-1 win over Minnesota United March 30 was 10,657.
Another example of the appeal of pro/rel was Fox Soccer’s broadcast of a Newcastle-Huddersfield relegation battle Feb. 23; it attracted 353,000 viewers, more than last weekend’s D.C. United-Los Angeles FC “top of the table” MLS clash (341,000).
As for MLS’s competitive level, Revolution coach Brad Friedel noted “a lot of the players, when they lose, it doesn’t hurt enough — there’s not relegation, they don’t get fined” or are not otherwise pressured.
Instituting promotion/relegation would lead to opening all leagues in the US, placing the country’s soccer system in line with FIFA regulations. As far as current ownership having assets placed at risk by the threat of relegation, experts note that compensation can be provided via “parachute payments.”
Also, relegation does not have to be considered a death sentence — a team can always win its way back via promotion.
Manchester City (26-4-2, 80 points) is second to Liverpool (25-1-7, 82 points) but has a game in hand and can capture the Premier League title by winning its final six matches. Three London clubs are battling for the league’s other two Champions League spots: Chelsea (20-7-6, 66 points), Tottenham (21-10-1, 64), and Arsenal (19-7-6, 63). Manchester United (18-7-7, 61) fell off the pace with a 3-1 loss to Wolverhampton. Upcoming showdowns among the leaders include Liverpool vs. Chelsea Sunday; Manchester City vs. Tottentham April 20; and Manchester United vs. Chelsea April 27.