24 Thoughts: Carlos Bocanegra on Atlanta United's turnaround, and a Rivalry Week primer

Atlanta United technical director Carlos Bocanegra. (Dale Zanine/USA Today)

Defending MLS Cup champions Atlanta United leapfrogged the Philadelphia Union and into first place in the Eastern Conference on Sunday, so it seems only right to have Atlanta take top billing in this week’s column, too.

It’s been an interesting season for the Five Stripes. United won just one of their first six matches under new coach Frank de Boer (who replaced Tata Martino over the winter) and the holders struggled to replace talisman Miguel Almiron (who was sold to Premier League Newcastle for a cool $27 million) before slowly but surely climbing back up the standings.

“We knew we didn’t become a bad team overnight,” Atlanta United vice president and technical director Carlos Bocanegra told Yahoo Sports when we caught up on the phone on Wednesday evening. “We lost Miguel, who was obviously a game changer and maybe one of the best players this league has ever seen, so to think we were just going to hit our stride with a few changes, we knew we were going to have a few bumps and growing pains along the way.

”But,” Bocanegra added, “in the big picture, we always knew we were going to be up there towards the top by the end of the season.”

24 Thoughts

1. By late April, the knives were out for De Boer. Not surprisingly, the former Ajax and Inter Milan manager had a steep learning curve when it came to the peculiarities of MLS after spending his entire life in Europe. Bocanegra expected as much.

“We were thinking long-term instead of panicking,” he said. “One of the main roles as a technical director is to give support, information, paint the whole picture about what the league is like,” in terms of travel, rules, etc.

But until you actually go through it, it’s hard to really know,” Bocanegra continued. “Frank and his staff kept their ears open and they were able to adjust on the fly. Just like players adapting to the league, it takes coaches time to adapt.”

2. Atlanta’s returning players had to adapt, too. After two seasons of the high-risk, high-reward, highly entertaining run-and-gun counterattacking style preferred by Martino, De Boer wanted to play more of a possession-based game. It didn’t help that rising teenage left back George Bello has been unavailable most of the year because of injuries or that De Boer got thrown right into the fire in the CONCACAF Champions League before the MLS season even began.

3. “These aren’t excuses, but It’s all part of it,” Bocanegra said. “We have a new coaching staff that’s adjusting to the league and adjusting to our team, and our team is adjusting to them. We knew it probably wasn’t going to be smooth sailing.”

Just 17, left back George Bello (right) was expected to play a major role for Atlanta United this season before injuries intervened. (Adam Hagy/USA Today)

4. Thought it was interesting that Bocanegra sees the 17-year-old Bello, who made his only three MLS appearances in 2018, as such a key member of the squad. “We planned for him to be part of the mix from the beginning,” he said. “Instead it was kind of left back by committee for a while.”

5. United beat reporter Felipe Cardenas of The Athletic identified a 2-1 loss in Seattle last month as the turning point in the club’s season; not only has Atlanta won five of six games since, they’ve outscored their opponents 17-5 over that span. “I’ve heard that narrative, but it was coming,” Bocanegra said when asked what he saw as the turning point. “We were starting to play a little bit better, starting to get guys back healthy and in form and now we’re in a moment where we’re in a really good way and hopefully we can continue this and stay hot into the playoffs.”

6. Atlanta had been the league’s darling since its expansion season in 2017, drawing record crowds in what had long been considered a suspect sports town. It matched the enthusiasm in the stands with a team that was worth the price of admission. That honeymoon was always going to end eventually. “It feels like this year people are trying to chop us down and look for storylines to kind of get after us, which is fine. We’re the champions, and we didn’t get one bit of bad press for two years,” Bocanegra said. “I like the way we’ve handled it. As a club in general, we’re starting to show a bit of maturity.”

7. Atlanta’s biggest threat probably isn’t the Union but rather New York City FC. After beating the hapless Columbus Crew on Wednesday, the Pigeons sit just one point back of the East leader, with a game in hand. Josef Martinez and Co. eked past NYCFC 2-1 on Aug. 11. The teams meet again in the Bronx next month in a match that could determine who gets the conference’s top seed. “They’ve been good all year,” Bocanegra said, adding that he’s also concerned about the New York area’s original MLS team. “Let’s not sleep on the Red Bulls either— they’ve always been a thorn in our side. We’re not taking anything likely.”

8. No matter how close Atlanta comes to repeating, the club already has one trophy in the bag this season after beating Mexican titan Club America in the second annual Campeones Cup that pits the MLS and Liga MX champs in a one-off match hosted by the former. Bocanegra and I spoke a day after the LA Galaxy rested most of their starters and narrowly lost to Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup, another new competition contested by MLS and Mexican teams. As a former U.S. men’s national team captain who played in many international games against El Tri, was curious what he thought about the league’s evolving relationship with its counterpart south of the border.

That game against Club America was awesome” Bocanegra said. “We met with their front office staff on the sporting side and exchanged ideas and just had a really good chat club-to-club about the challenges they face in their market and we in ours. Any time you get exposure to that, and we get to test ourselves and evaluate where we are in more meaningful games, I hope the Leagues Cup can get to that.”

9. The bigger shock wasn’t that the Montreal Impact fired coach Remi Garde on Wednesday. It was that they replaced him with former Houston Dynamo boss Wilmer Cabrera. Cabrera, who had his former club on pace to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season, was hired just a week after getting the axe himself. With the Impact having lost six of their last eight and clinging to the final spot in the Eastern Conference, the move reeks of desperation.

Cabrera becomes the Impact’s sixth coach in eight MLS seasons, following Garde, Mauro Biello, Frank Klopas, Marco Schallibaum and Jesse Marsch. (The decision to part ways with Marsch after a more than respectable first season in 2012 continues to look worse and worse; Marsch, who went on to win a Supporters Shield with the New York Red Bulls, is off to a 4-0 start as manager of UEFA Champions League-bound sister club Red Bull Salzburg.)

Remi Garde became the sixth MLS coach to be fired this season when the Montreal Impact replaced him with Wilmer Cabrera on Wednesday. (Fred Kfoury III/Getty)

10. Former Lyon and Aston Villa coach Garde never quite seemed to settle in MLS and was probably the wrong guy to begin with. Impact brass will be hoping that Cabrera can provide the same sort of new-coach bump that Biello provided in 2015, when Montreal went 7W-2L-2T over its last 11 games to reach the playoffs, then crushed Toronto FC in the first round.

11. The Impact’s remaining schedule is tough, though, with visits from D.C. United, the Red Bulls and conference-leading Atlanta and trips to Toronto and the Galaxy among their final seven regular season matches.

12. Garde was the sixth MLS coach to be whacked this season, joining Cabrera, Anthony Hudson (Colorado Rapids), Alan Koch (FC Cincinnati), Brad Friedel (New England) and Mike Petke (Real Salt Lake). Who will be the next to get let go? Orlando City’s James O’Connor and Veljko Paunovc of the Chicago Fire have to be near the top of the list. And if ninth-place Toronto misses the playoffs for the second time since winning the 2017 MLS Cup, Greg Vanney could be in jeopardy, too.

13. It wasn’t a good week for Wayne Rooney. The D.C. United forward berated the fourth official after being subbed out of last weekend’s 1-0 loss in Vancouver and got sent off in the first half of the Black and Red’s defeat to the rival Red Bulls on Wednesday.

14. Referee Ismail Elfath also showed a straight red card to New York’s Amro Tarek in that match, and he could’ve easily done the same to DCU’s Quincy Amarikwa for his second half elbow to the jaw of Aaron Long. Not sure how VAR didn’t flag that one they like they did on the play involving Rooney.

15. En route back from Western Canada on Sunday, Rooney took aim at MLS’s rules limiting charter flights, which the MLS Players Association is pushing hard to change. I thought it was interesting that Atlanta United defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez said that even during his time playing in Argentina’s second division, teams always chartered flights. It’s not uncommon for NCAA teams in different sports — even non-revenue ones — to charter to games and competitions, either.

16. San Jose Earthquakes coach Matias Almeyda was also shown from the field during LAFC’s 4-0 drubbing of the San Jose Quakes and should be facing a multi-game suspension for pushing a security guard and trying to enter the stands to go after a fan.

17. My Yahoo teammate Caitlin Murray did a great job breaking down the brewing dispute between MLS, its teams and fan groups over what constitutes political signage inside stadiums.

18. MLS commissioner Don Garber and Players Association chief Bob Foose agree on this much ahead of this winter’s CBA negotiations: MLS is still losing money. “We’re still investing and many teams are not cash-flowing positively,” Garber said last month in an interview with Yahoo Sports.

19. “They’re still very much in growth mode,” Foose added before the All-Star Game in Orlando a couple of days later. “This is not a league that's seeking to be profitable on a cash basis right now. That's not the stage that they're in. They're looking to grow the league and they're doing so relatively successfully and I would expect that to continue for the medium-term anyway. It can't continue forever but that's what we would expect certainly in this negotiation.”

20. MLS expanded by another team this week as St. Louis, which will kick off in 2022, officially became its 28th club. For someone who began covering the league way back when it had just 10 teams and one soccer-specific stadium, seeing that growth up close has been almost surreal at times.

21. That said, it’s important to remember how far MLS still has to go. I got a reminder covering the Women’s World Cup in France earlier this summer. Take Stade Oceane, the gorgeous 25,000 seat stadium that Le Havre AC calls home. It’s a dead ringer for Red Bull Arena, among the top facilities in MLS. But this one is for a second-tier club that last played in Ligue 1 a decade ago and has toggled back and forth between France’s top two divisions throughout its almost 150-year (!) history.

22. Then there are the arenas of top flight mainstays like Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain, which look and feel more like NFL stadiums. And Ligue 1 isn’t even among Europe’s top four circuits.

23. This is pure speculation, but don’t be surprised if sports streaming service DAZN — which is headed by former ESPN chief and avid soccer supporter John Skipper — makes a major push to acquire MLS rights when the league’s local national television contracts expire in 2022.

24. Speaking of the MLS broadcast partners, it’s been fun to see the league get some extra exposure this summer. That will continue through the end of Rivalry Week, with ESPN airing Atlanta-Orlando and Portland-Seattle on Friday night and FS1 with a triple-header of in-state derbies on Sunday. First up is Cincinnati-Columbus (6 p.m. ET), then FC Dallas-Dynamo (8 ET). The nightcap at 10:30 ET is the big one, though, as LAFC goes for its first win against the visiting Galaxy in what might just be the most anticipated regular season match in MLS history.

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