Atlanta United’s offseason began sooner than expected following last week’s loss to Columbus in the first round of the MLS playoffs.
Now, a crucial offseason begins in the club’s quest to improve on its record (15-9-10) and fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference.
The next 2-1/2 months shouldn’t be as hectic as the same period last year when the team was putting the finishing touches on its roster ahead of its first training camp.
But there are still several issues that must be analyzed and decisions made.
Here are three questions facing Atlanta United:
Will Yamil Asad, Greg Garza and Anton Walkes return?
Each of three played for Atlanta United while on loan from other clubs.
Asad was on loan from Velez Sarsfield in Argentina, Garza from Tijuana in Mexico and Walkes from Tottenham Hotspur in England. Club President Darren Eales said last week that the team would start the decision-making process within the next two weeks.
Each player proved valuable this season. Asad played in 32 games, starting 31, and scored seven goals with 13 assists. He was tenacious on defense in manager Gerardo Martino’s press. After two red cards earlier in the season, he settled down, logging almost 2,800 minutes. His father was quoted by Argentinian news outlets this summer as saying that his son would return to Atlanta United. Asad declined to confirm that, though he did say several times that he wants to return.
Garza made 26 appearances, including 25 starts. He proved as valuable on offense working with Asad on the left side on defense. Garza finished with two goals and five assists before a series of hamstring injuries prematurely ended his season. He also said that he wants to return to Atlanta United.
Walkes took over at right fullback and started 18 of the final 19 games. Though his offense was inconsistent in his first starts, he quickly developed into an able crosser. His defense was usually solid. His contract with Tottenham was extended by a year through 2018-19. He hasn’t said if he wants to return to Atlanta United, but he faces tough competition for playing time at Spurs.
Martino moved players from one position into another with consistent success: Walkes typically plays centerback. and Chris McCann, who moved into left fullback for Garza after his injury, is a midfielder by trade.
Martino can do it again if neither Walkes nor Garza returns, but he may not want to.
What positions need strengthening with signings?
This answer depends upon what happens with Asad, Garza and Walkes. If they return, then those positions are fine.
But there are other position groups that need more competition.
When Josef Martinez suffered his injury while playing with Venezuela, the team didn’t have a like-for-like replacement. Martino moved Hector Villalba from right midfield to striker, which created an issue at right midfielder. Martino tried to solve that by moving Julian Gressel from the middle to the right. Gressel played well no matter where he was deployed, but the easiest solution would be to find a player who more closely resembles Martinez. The team didn’t recall Romario Williams from his loan at Charleston. He may be the backup solution, but the issue is he may not get a lot of minutes, which could hinder his development.
The development of Andrew Carleton as a right midfielder could allow Martino to give Villalba more time at striker.
Centerback is another area that could use strengthening. Whenever Michael Parkhurst or Leandro Gonzalez Pirez didn’t play, Martino typically moved Jeff Larentowicz from defensive midfielder to centerback. He did this despite the team selecting Miles Robinson with the second pick in the SuperDraft, and trading for Bobby Boswell in August. Both are centerbacks. Neither Larentowicz nor Boswell may be with the team next season, depending upon their contracts and what Atlanta United chooses to do.
How much technical director Carlos Bocanegra and Martino think that Carleton and Chris Goslin, two of the team’s five Homegrown Player signings, can play this season may also determine the team’s strategies for who it pursues.
Who will be protected in the expansion draft?
MLS hasn’t released many details of the expansion draft to help LAFC to stock its roster.
If the rules are similar to those used for last year’s drafts for Atlanta United and Minnesota United, each of the league’s teams will be able to protect as many as 11 players. Homegrown players in Supplemental and Reserve roster spots couldn’t be selected. Each team could lose just one player. Atlanta United and Minnesota United each selected five players, though in previous expansion drafts teams had 10 selections.
Without knowing the length of their contracts, there are a few players that Atlanta United seems likely to leave unprotected because they weren’t often selected this season: Harrison Heath, Mikey Ambrose, Mark Bloom and Kyle Reynish. Older veterans such as Jacob Peterson, Kenwyne Jones, Boswell, Alec Kann and Larentowicz may also be left exposed.
A guess as to who team will protect: Martinez, Almiron, Villalba, Asad, Carlos Carmona, Brad Guzan, Parkhurst, Gressel, Kratz, Gonzalez Pirez and Brandon Vazquez.