The Five Stripes won the title in just their second season. But after the departure of two key figures they have struggled to find a new identity
Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez was welcomed to the US with a song. As he stepped off the team bus, Atlanta United supporters chanted: “Él Pity Martínez, que loco que esta,” echoing fans in Madrid months earlier where Pity sealed the Copa Libertadores for River Plate.
It was a fitting welcome for the Argentinian who, until then, shared only a single quality with the club he signed for: a brief but bright history. The chants showed fans’ expectations were high. But at the start of this season, neither Atlanta nor their new star have lived up to expectations. Reality is setting in.
After winning the MLS title in just their second season, and pulling in average home crowds of 53,000, United have won just two of their first six games. Their 4-0 trouncing of Costa Rican side Herediano in the Concacaf Champions League showed how good they can be. But against better sides, like last night’s empty second leg win against Monterrey, Frank De Boer’s team – and Pity – have looked sluggish and creatively shallow.
Many expected Pity would immediately be able to replace the brilliant Miguel Almirón, who determined the pace of play and ran Atlanta’s attack before his departure to Newcastle. Pity hasn’t quite hit those heights: so far he’s produced one assist, a yellow card and innumerable frustrated facial expressions.
At River Plate, Pity was manager Marcelo Gallardo’s personal project. He was brought to the team as a promising 21-year-old, and was given all the time he needed to grow to replace veteran Andrés D’Alessandro. Gallardo rotated him around the midfield until finally finding his place on the left. Playing off his favored foot after receiving the ball in the final third, Pity would produce chances after short spurts of possession. With one dribble he could drop the ball into the box. But at Atlanta, De Boer is asking him too much of him.
The Dutchman’s tactics helped to develop players like Christian Eriksen, who played Pity’s playmaker position in the same system. De Boer asks his creative midfielders to attack through the middle of the pitch. Gallardo’s River Plate are more direct but not entirely different in style, but there Pity could depend on two class box-to-box center midfielders, Enzo Pérez and Ignacio Fernández, to carry the ball forward before handing it off to him upfield.
In Atlanta, behind Pity sit Eric Remedi and Darlington Nagbe. The former is a stopgap holding midfield and has not shown confidence on the ball. Nagbe is more versatile but he cannot be asked to bear the entire weight of possession. And if Pity wants support from the wing, he has to rely on Brek Shea, who is woefully short of pace. It was Nagbe who assisted Josef Martínez for the winner against Monterrey, while Pity’s two chances came just outside the box, firing both times after a single touch.
Pity is not the stereotypical foreign MLS star of old – a Frank Lampard or Andrea Pirlo winding down a successful career. Instead the 25-year-old is more like Sebastian Giovinco when he first arrived in MLS: a young, creative player ready to explode into his prime. But if he isn’t to bend under the pressure of expectation, he needs to be given time to grow and develop into the player his manager needs.
His manager could benefit from being given time, too. He was sacked after poor starts at both Internazionale and Crystal Palace. He needs a strong season to clear the skeletons out of the closet, and he may need more than the 77 days he was given at Palace to realize that Atlanta need to be more direct, as they were under Tata Martino, rather than trying to hold on to the ball for too long.
Supporters are “spoiled with the results of last season,” said DeBoer in Sunday’s press conference after United gave away a late goal to Cincinnati, dropping two points. That may not have been the best way to appeal for patience, but results are what De Boer, Atlanta and Pity need right now.