Going into a must-win to avoid elimination from playoff contention, optimism was high that Atlanta had finally found their form in the final weeks of the season and that maybe, just maybe, they could enjoy a magical run if they could get into the postseason. Instead, a flat performance in attack, mixed in with a really big blunder in the back, put Atlanta on the ropes. A moribund 80 minutes gave way to a late spark delivered by star striker Josef Martinez off the bench with a scissor-kick golazo to restore hope, only for the Revolution to find the winning goal minutes later.
And so, out of the playoffs for the second time in three years despite having the league's highest payroll, Atlanta United is at a crossroads going into the winter. But before looking ahead, an examination of what went wrong in 2022 is required.
"The word I would probably choose to use is chaotic. I think there have been some highs, but there have obviously been some lows," said veteran goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who ruptured his Achilles tendon on April 16 and missed the majority of the season. "At the start of the year when we were down in Mexico for preseason, the vibe was one that we were all excited for the year. Slowly but surely though, a spell of injuries came in rapid fire."
Not only did Guzan fall by the wayside, but so did starting center-back Miles Robinson and new arrival Ozzie Alonso. Robinson tore his Achilles in early May, while defensive midfielder Alonso tore his ACL in early April, leaving Atlanta United with a completely different-looking spine for most of the season. But there was still plenty of horsepower up top to have fans believing Atlanta could patch over those defensive frailties with offensive output. The 47 goals scored thus far have been far from what many expected.
"It is a Beverly Hills dumpster fire, because you have all of these luxury pieces on paper that should be top of the league," said ESPN analyst Herculez Gomez. "Whether it's overall play, roster construction, health, which has been a serious issue for Atlanta, those things are a factor, but health is something that every MLS team deals with.
"You are in a Designated Player era, so you absolutely have to knock it out of the park. Your important players have to be available and productive, and Atlanta has not had that."
One of the most important things to watch this winter in Atlanta will be what happens with Thiago Almada. Signed for a league record $16 million last offseason, Almada has delivered six goals and 11 assists in his first year in MLS. While those numbers are solid, there needs to be a sharp uptick next season if Atlanta are to return to the east's elite. That is assuming Almada remains with Atlanta.
The former Velez Sarsfield man was just the second MLS player ever to be called to an Argentina national team camp and was hailed by Lionel Messi during his time with the Albiceleste over the international break. A call-up to the World Cup squad in Qatar is unlikely for Almada, but the 2024 Copa America could be in the cards and Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni is reportedly keen to see Almada move to Europe.
If Almada does stay with Atlanta in 2023, however, he would be the centerpiece for a potential renaissance.
"When you look at his recent performances compared to the beginning of the year, I think you see someone who found their footing," Guzan said. "You are starting to see a much more comfortable Thiago. You see him fitting into the team and understanding movement of guys around him. Guys are understanding now where he likes to pick up the ball, what he likes to do with the ball at his feet and when you have that that continuity, you start to see the excitement and skill he has."
What does appear likely is the return of head coach Gonzalo Pineda. Even though expectations were not met in 2022, Pineda will be back for a second full season, according to a local report, which arguably dovetails into whether or not Martinez will return for a seventh season.
The Martinez situation is complicated. He remains a fan favorite and is still one of the most dynamic strikers in MLS, despite the torn ACL suffered at the start of 2020. The Venezuela international leads Atlanta in scoring this season with nine goals, even though he's only started 12 of 25 matches. The coach and player are not on the same page: Pineda has opted for other forwards in his starting XI, including last Saturday in Foxborough.
Martinez has a history of dust-ups with Atlanta coaches, Pineda included, and with the Mexican apparently set to stay at the helm, Martinez's brilliant strike last Saturday could very well be his last in an Atlanta shirt.
"I think this is it. And it's sad because Josef Martinez is one of the most electrifying players I've seen in MLS, akin to Robbie Keane with the LA Galaxy," Gomez said. "[Martinez] is that type of winner, that type of productive player and he's not been the same since that unfortunate injury.
"Now I am pro-Josef Martinez because when healthy, he is one of the most productive players this league has ever seen. At some point though you need to be a good teammate, be a good employee, regardless of injury, regardless of system, regardless of change, personnel or coaching."
Pineda, meanwhile, has been non-committal on Martinez's future, gently deflecting away whether this Sunday will be the 29-year-old's last with Atlanta, saying in his post-match news conference on Saturday, "I don't know the answer to that."
Unlike the standoff between then-manager Gabriel Heinze and Martinez in 2021, one that resulted in Heinze packing his bags, this time the signs are pointing toward an exit for Martinez instead.
If it does come to pass, it will feel like the end of an incredible era in MLS. No new MLS franchise hit the ground running quite like Atlanta United did in 2017, with a breathtaking brand of soccer orchestrated by coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino and powered by Martinez and playmaker Miguel Almiron, the exclamation point being an MLS Cup trophy in 2018.
"From a sporting side we're trying to get back to that success that we created early on and that's winning games, winning trophies and competing for trophies. Atlanta United is still a massive club, if not the biggest club in the league. Players are still eager to come and be a part of Atlanta United. It's down to us as players to recapture that success by winning games," Guzan said.
Outside of Guzan, though, the remnants of those great teams are largely gone, and the front office has also experienced profound change. Fortunately for Atlanta fans, they support a team that is always looking to improve each offseason.
"It's natural in football to see these cycles end and it probably closed a little sooner than most would have thought. There are probably a few fingers that can be pointed at the front office, the constant player turnover, the constant coaching turnover, but it's not for a lack of trying. You look at the money they've spent, most fan bases can only dream of ownership that would be that ambitious," Gomez said.
Whatever transpires, the pieces are there for Atlanta to quickly rise back up the table in 2023 and a winning campaign under Pineda would make the pain of a Martinez exit go away quickly. Moving on from the most popular player in franchise history will not be easy, but it might be the best way to move forward.