By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer
Atlanta United FC’s decision Sunday to fire Gabriel Heinze just 13 games into the Argentine coach’s first MLS season was certainly shocking to many around the league.
But inside the club itself, the change wasn’t surprising — at least not to multiple club sources who spoke anonymously to FOX Sports about how the former Manchester United and Real Madrid defender’s hard-driving style had alienated his roster since his introduction in December.
Things had gotten so bad that the MLS Players Association filed a grievance with the league on behalf of Atlanta’s players, who cited numerous violations of the collective bargaining agreement, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported shortly after news of Heinze’s dismissal broke.
Heinze’s staff limited the amount of water players could drink during preseason practices, to the point that the club’s doctors were forced to intervene, according to sources. Heinze refused to grant players their guaranteed days off and demanded they always be available to answer their phones or report to the training facility at a moment’s notice.
“The tactics and soccer side are one thing, but there was so much going on off the field that players were mentally drained on a daily basis,” one source inside the club said.
Upon joining MLS in 2017, Atlanta quickly established itself as one of the most successful expansion teams in the history of North American professional sports. The franchise played to NFL-size crowds and won the 2018 MLS Cup in its second season.
Now, the club is again at a crossroads after firing a high-profile, highly compensated head coach for the second time in less than 12 months, following Frank De Boer’s dismissal in July 2020.
Under head coach Gabriel Heinze, Atlanta sits in 10th place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 2-4-7. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
ATLANTA’S FALL FROM ITS EARLY HEIGHTS
Everything club president Darren Eales and VP Carlos Bocanegra touched turned to gold during United’s first two MLS seasons. But the Five Stripes became victims of their own early success, leading to the departures of several key figures, not least manager Tata Martino and attacker Miguel Almiron.
Martino, who’d previously managed Lionel Messi with both Barcelona and Argentina, was lured away by Mexico’s national team.
Almiron, the team’s Paraguayan spark plug, was sold for a tidy profit to Newcastle of the Premier League.
De Boer, the former Ajax and Inter Milan boss, was hired as the new head coach, and reigning South American player of the year Pity Martinez was brought in to energize the lineup. But neither fit in Atlanta, and both were jettisoned before the 2020 campaign was over.
Heinze, another Argentine, was supposed to represent a return to the club’s swashbuckling roots. He played at the highest levels of the sport and was regarded as one of South America’s top young coaches after three successful seasons at Velez Sarsfield. But almost immediately, it became clear that personality-wise, he was the opposite of Martino. Heinze failed to adapt to his new environment.
“It was hell every day for six months,” another United source said of Heinze’s tenure.
Atlanta United FC won the MLS Cup in just its second season in 2018, earning the city’s first championship since 1995. (Photo by Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
WHAT WENT WRONG UNDER HEINZE?
Sources described a culture in which Heinze barely spoke to his players, using intermediaries instead. He and his hand-picked backroom staff made little effort to develop relationships with the club’s existing employees, leading to a lack of communication and poor morale across the organization.
Heinze frustrated players and staffers alike by not sharing the team’s schedule in advance, then brushed off those concerns when confronted.
The bad vibes manifested on the field; following Saturday’s 1-0 loss to New England, Atlanta (0W-3L-5T in its past eight matches) sat 10th in MLS’s 14-team Eastern Conference.
Eales insisted Sunday that Heinze’s benching of star striker Josef Martinez wasn’t the reason for his dismissal. But it probably accelerated the inevitable.
Atlanta benefits from one of the league’s most passionate groups of supporters. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
WHAT’S NEXT FOR UNITED?
The struggles of a club that seemed invincible during its first three years serve as a reminder that sustaining success is more difficult than achieving it.
It’s hard to keep the locker room mix right, no matter how much homework you do or how much money you spend on transfer fees and well-heeled coaches.
All’s far from lost, though.
Atlanta’s fan base remains among the largest, if not the biggest outright, in MLS. The club, which plays to huge crowds at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, last week was valued by Sportico at a cool $845 million, second only to LAFC among MLS’s 27 teams.
United remains about as well-positioned as possible off the field.
On it, it’s impossible to deny that this once-model franchise has become a shadow of its former self, and more departures could be in the cards if the squad doesn’t rebound under interim coach Rob Valentino.
The search for a permanent manager is already underway. Getting that move right will be critical to the futures of both Eales and Bocanegra.
After swinging hard and missing spectacularly twice in a row, United needs its next hiring to rekindle some of the magic that helped put the club on the map in the first place.
One of the most prominent soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams in more than a dozen countries, including multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports, the New York City native was a staff writer for Yahoo Sports and ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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