How Atlanta United’s midseason makeover changed the team’s MLS form

There was a moment this summer that felt painfully familiar to Atlanta United fans.

In July, Atlanta labored through a four-game losing streak that included the club’s elimination in the opening round of the inaugural Leagues Cup. A 4-0 loss to Inter Miami in that tournament was especially cruel, as former Atlanta United manager Tata Martino, former Atlanta United star Josef Martínez, and Lionel Messi dismantled the Five Stripes.

Two weeks prior, Atlanta United were forced to loan defensive midfielder Franco Ibarra to Toronto FC. Ibarra was signed via MLS’s U-22 initiative, but at the time Atlanta had four U-22 initiative players on its roster – one more than the league allows. Ibarra was playing consistently under manager Gonzalo Pineda, and he was blindsided by the move along with much of Atlanta’s fanbase. However, he had to leave because he was the only one of Atlanta’s four U-22 initiative players actually performing. No one else had any value or interest.

That oversight, coupled with the club’s poor form, put pressure on Atlanta United’s front office, particularly on technical director Carlos Bocanegra, to fix things fast.

“Hopefully you guys will see at the end of the window, when we have made all of our moves and where the pieces fall, that this was part of the greater plan,” Bocanegra told reporters on July 6.

Internally, the reality had already set in. Atlanta United needed another reboot.

“We just had the sense we weren’t good enough,” Atlanta United president and CEO Garth Lagerwey told The Athletic in September.

Changes came. A lot of them.

Atlanta brought in three new starters — midfielder Tristan Muyumba, wingers Saba Lobjanidze and Xande Silva — as well as forward Jamal Thiare and the return of winger Edwin Mosquera from loan (which necessitated the departure of Ibarra). To facilitate the new players, Atlanta sold designated player winger Luiz Araujo, who was initially signed for a fee up to $12 million, traded left back Andrew Gutman, loaned Ibarra and agreed a mutual contract termination with disappointing U-22 initiative winger Erik Lopez.

There was a gap between Araujo (last game June 8), Gutman (July 2) and Ibarra (July 9) leaving before Muyumba (debut July 30), Silva (August 21) and Lobjanidze (August 27) arrived, but Atlanta kept their head above water.

“We knew it was a risk because you’re effectively unbuilding the airplane to get the pieces to build it while it’s flying,” Lagerwey said. “We had a rough stretch there in the summer. … But we felt we had to take those risks to try to put us on a sustainable path to success.”

Saba Lobjanidze has helped balance Atlanta’s attack (Jason Allen/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Since resuming play following Leagues Cup, Atlanta has just one loss in seven games and a +11 goal differential. The three new signings have been integral to that run of form, with Muyumba increasing the club’s solidity in defensive transition, while the wingers have lifted some attacking burden off star Thiago Almada. has three goals and three assists in just 269 minutes while Silva has two goals and two assists in 425 minutes.

Together with forward Giorgios Giakoumakis, Atlanta’s attacking quartet is among the most talented and balanced in the league. In the six matches all four of Giakoumakis, Almada, Lobjanidze and Silva have appeared, Atlanta has scored 17 goals and picked up 1.8 points per game.

“We had a gap where we didn’t have some of our players before the new signings came in and we were able to get some momentum,” Bocanegra said.

Atlanta also gained balance. Muyumba has shielded the defense to great effect, with Atlanta conceding just over over goal per game on average after his arrival, down from the team’s season-long average of 1.5. That’s impacting other players on the roster, too; winter signing Luis Abram has found his form, starting the last 12 MLS games in central defense alongside U.S. national team center back Miles Robinson.

Atlanta has done all of this while increasing roster flexibility for next season and beyond.

Silva has a purchase option — one that Lagerwey called “reasonable” — they can execute this offseason, with a long-term contract already agreed and set. More importantly, while Lobjanidze took a DP spot, he can be bought down in the future.

That means Atlanta can add another DP or, as they hope, facilitate keeping Almada for longer. The Argentine is currently a young DP (23 or younger) but will age out of that designation in 2025. With Lobjanidze as the third DP — colloquially known as a “restricted” DP, meaning he can be bought down — Atlanta can still use all three U-22 initiative slots.

Taking away all the roster rule jargon, it signifies that Atlanta would love to keep their star attacker for as long as he wants to stay, but if he leaves, there are contingency plans and multiple routes to pursue in terms of roster building.

“We are not a developmental club,” Lagerwey said. “Don’t confuse that to mean we don’t develop players, but there’s (48,000+ fans) who show up every week. Those folks deserve to be entertained. … You need to deliver a premium product on the field all of the time. You do. You have to have that veteran core, you have to contend for championships.”

Atlanta United under Lagerwey is a work in progress. So too is Atlanta’s on-field identity under Pineda. The 40-year-old former Mexico international has tried to establish a style of play, and up until this summer, he has done so with a squad that had many missing pieces.

Pineda recently told reporters that he doesn’t want Atlanta United to play “a transitional, box-to-box type of game.” That style, however, is what fans loved about Atlanta United’s first two seasons in 2017 and 2018, lead to a raucous atmosphere at Atlanta games. Pineda said that he prefers to dominate possession and control the flow of the game, something that Atlanta does well at times.

But of late, Atlanta has been punishing teams in transition at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Lobjanidze, Silva and Almada are especially dangerous in open space, something that Lagerwey acknowledged.

“We added wingers but part of the reason we added the wingers was because we wanted to be more dynamic,” said Lagerwey. “Because we want to play more often in transition. I really think from a defensive structure, they helped us by then allowing us to play in a different way. Now (Almada) doesn’t have to dribble the ball 40 yards up the field to create and score.”

Atlanta has shown flashes of good soccer since Pineda was hired, but generally speaking, Atlanta United’s previous inconsistency was the result of naivete on match days.

The midfield in particular had been a trouble spot. Atlanta United were an easy team to attack, especially through the middle of the field. That led to a nervy backline and a goals against number (currently at 47) that has held the team back. Muyumba, who at 26 had played just one match of first division European soccer before he was signed, has settled into the team immediately. Atlanta has not had a reliable box-to-box central midfielder since Darlington Nagbe left the club after the 2019 season.

“Tristan is an all-action midfielder,” Bocanegra said. “He can defend, he can attack; He can progress, he’s good in possession. That was something we felt we needed to add to the group. He’s come in and really done a good job for us. Connecting with Thiago and (Giakoumakis) up top, and been a link to the backline, as well. We couldn’t keep leaking goals and be a true contender in the playoffs.”

Though the early returns are positive, Atlanta isn’t celebrating anything yet. It’s a small sample size and the club’s final three regular season games against three strong opponents — FC Cincinnati, Philadelphia Union and Columbus Crew — will yield further key data points to the group.

“Look, we don’t know if this worked yet,” Lagerwey said. “I love the hype and everything is great, it’s awesome, but we haven’t done anything yet. Right now, all we’ve established is that we’re one of the top 18 out of 29 teams. Hallelujah. … Representing progress would be securing home field, winning a playoff series. That would be forward progress.”

As president and CEO, Lagerwey is the tip of the club’s front office workflow. Bocanegra continues his role in overseeing player acquisitions. That includes a growing analytics team that Lagerwey is excited about. During this past summer transfer window, Lagerwey leaned on consulting start-up src ftbl (pronounced “source football”) to help identify new signings.

Dimitrios Efstathiou, Atlanta’s VP of soccer operations and de facto salary cap guru, collaborates to set plans and targets. Lagerwey is then looped into the process, adds his thoughts and concerns, then they decide if they move forward. Bocanegra initiates most negotiations.

Though Lagerwey started this offseason, he didn’t get started until after Atlanta took decisions on contract options, signed Derrick Etienne Jr. in free agency and set winter transfer window plans in motion. For better or worse, the summer is the first true window he’s overseen at his new club.

“I do think we have one more window of building toward getting the right balance of contract and spend, but we’re going to continue that evaluation,” Lagerwey said. “We have a real opportunity here.”

It’s a work in progress, but things look much more optimistic today in Atlanta than they have in a while.

(Photo: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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