For Atlanta United players and fans, this has been a season unlike any other in the franchise’s short history. Felipe Cardenas, a staff writer for The Athletic, walks us through a season that's been beset with injuries, a coach’s firing, a pandemic, and the team's decision not to play on Wednesday in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

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TRANSCRIPT:

Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, August 28th 2020.

Broadcast: Take three on the 25th season of Major League Soccer, a new look at Atlanta United back at Mercedes Benz Stadium for the first time since March 7. It’s been a 68-day absence from this stadium. It does feel strange.

Steve Fennessy: The story of the tumultuous Atlanta United season, from Josef Martinez's injury to the disruption caused by the pandemic, to the team's decision this week to refuse to play a game against Miami in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Well, it really begins last year when the front office brought in a new coach to succeed the departing Tata Martino, who had led the team to an MLS Cup championship in 2018 and just the franchise's second season. Keep in mind that the MLS Cup represented the first Major League Sports Championship for an Atlanta franchise since 1995, when the Braves last won the World Series. Martino’s successor was a man named Frank de Boer, who couldn't have been more different in his style. I asked my guest, Felipe Cardenas, who covers the team for the online sports outlet, The Athletic, to explain just how radical a change de Boer represented.

Felipe Cardenas: Well, I think we start with Tata Martino, and he has a history of, going back to his days as a manager in Argentina with Newell's Old Boys, which was his boyhood club. He grew up at that club. He played there professionally. And then he eventually coached Newell's Old Boys in Argentina to a local domestic championship. And in doing so, he did define a style. A lot of times people talk about a high press and what that means is you're going to challenge your opponent if they're on the ball and they're  — and they're in their own half of the field, you're there trying to recover the ball because you're closer to their  — to their goal. Then you recover that and you're going to create a chance. I think that's what defines Tata Martino's style. Pushing his team into the opponent's half at all times, fighting for those balls, for the second balls, for the 50-50 balls and then attacking it with numbers. And he did that here in Atlanta, and it worked.

Announcer: A record crowd at the end of a record-setting year, Atlanta United in just their second year of existence have won an MLS cup.

Felipe Cardenas: They won the 2018 MLS Cup.

Chant: Let's hear you again, ATL. Oh Tata Martino.

[Crowd Response]: Oh Tata Martino

Chant: Tata Martino, folks!

Felipe Cardenas: That defined Atlanta United in those two years under Tata Martino. It was part of the championship run in 2018, that style of play. Those unique players that could pull that style off.

Newscaster: Well, it's a rumor no more: Tata Martino is, in fact, leaving Atlanta United when the season ends….

Felipe Cardenas: And then after Tata Martino left, Frank de Boer was hired in January of 2019.

Steve Fennessy: So in their second year of existence they win it all. What kind of pressure did that put on Frank de Boer?

Felipe Cardenas: Now, now Frank de Boer in his own right, was an accomplished manager coming into this job with Atlanta United.

Frank de Boer: Yeah, I'm very excited to be here.

Felipe Cardenas: Here's Frank de Boer speaking to the media in January of 2018 after being announced as Atlanta United's new head coach.

Frank de Boer: Of course, the ambition that they have  — they just started two years ago in MLS  — and what they already achieved right now, it's incredible. So they have to do something good here. So  — and that's from the start, I had that feeling that I can focus on the one thing that I'm very good at. And that's, you know, the football side, of course, managing side is also very important.

Felipe Cardenas: He had won four consecutive titles with Ajax, probably the most successful and biggest club in Holland. I think the differing philosophies is where the marriage between Frank de Boer and Atlanta United really never worked out because the players were committed to that previous aggressive attacking identity. Frank de Boer, even though he  — he said it himself: I want to score goals, I want to attack.

Steve Fennessy: Sure.

Felipe Cardenas: The way he wanted to do it was just different. And I think he wanted to set up the team more defensively, make sure that they were strong defensively. There wasn't a lot of high pressing, like I explained before, they kind of sat at the midfield stripe and waited for their opponents to come at them, which was just a completely different way of playing for these players. It got more  — “methodical possession” became this buzz word around Atlanta United for the first time in a long time. I mean, Atlanta United under Tata Martino possessed if they had felt like they had to. But it wasn't something that they said, we're going to go into this game and try to keep the ball more than our opponents. Frank de Boer would point to possession stats and actually say we held the ball for 79% percent of the time and that was something that was important to him. But they weren't creating chances. They weren't exciting. A lot of ponderous play, a lot of methodical possession.

Steve Fennessy: And yet, despite his different coaching philosophy, de Boer brought them to the brink of a second consecutive MLS Cup appearance. They got to the Eastern Conference finals at home against Toronto last year.

Announcer: The Eastern Conference Final, between Atlanta United and Toronto FC, in front of another packed house here at Mercedes Benz Stadium, is underway!

Felipe Cardenas: Atlanta United plays one of the best games that they've played all season, but Josef Martinez misses a penalty kick that I think would have won that game for them. And in the end, Toronto advances to the finals.

Announcer: Toronto FC, for the third time in four years, have won the Eastern Conference Championship!

Felipe Cardenas: Atlanta United misses out on that huge opportunity to host their second consecutive MLS final here in Atlanta. So it was a big miss. It was something that I think still internally at the club, they still think about. I think it still sits with them that they did not get that done.

Steve Fennessy: So how did you come to cover Atlantic United in the first place?

Felipe Cardenas: That's a great question because it's a unique story. I have for years been  — I worked in advertising. I had like a 14-, 15-year career in advertising on the creative side. I've always been on the creative side, I was a writer. But soccer has just been part of my life. I played as a kid, I played in high school. I played what is considered today, you know, travel, soccer, club soccer, all the way up to when I was 19 years old. I played in college. Soccer has been a big part of my life. I played my entire life. And when I moved to Atlanta in 2010, I moved here for a different job. I moved here to continue working in advertising. And, you know, while I was here, I realized that there was something going on, like there was, like, buzz around this new MLS team that was going to kick off in 2017.

Newscaster: Big news in the sports world today. Major League Soccer is coming to the ATL. Falcons owner Arthur Blank made it official today after weeks of speculation.

Felipe Cardenas: MLS, for me, has always kind of been a league that I watch from afar. You know, I tend to watch global football, European soccer, a lot of South American soccer as well, ‘cause that's what I grew up in. And MLS, even though there were players that I really enjoyed, you know, like Carlos Valderrama, the very famous Colombian midfielder (he was in the league from the start in ‘96), I only lived in an MLS city for about two years. That was in Los Angeles. Went to a few games. Was never a huge fan. But I get to Atlanta and I see, you know, this could be big. They're going to bring in a big coach. It sounds like they want to win right away. There's a lot of, you know, Arthur Blank is involved, there's going to be this new stadium. It sounded different.

Steve Fennessy: A big part of building the Atlanta United fan base has been the many, many different supporter clubs that have sprung up. One of them is called Footie Mob. Marcus Cannady is on the board of directors for Footie Mob, and just before the 2018 MLS Cup, he talked with WSB-TV about the club's origins.

Marcus Cannady: We started right after the team was announced. A friend of mine got together, a group of friends, we've been friends for like ten years, and said: Hey, in Europe, they have supporter groups for the soccer teams, and so we all have a good time. And he’s like, let's marry Atlanta with soccer. And in a very distinct way, in a way that everyone in Atlanta can be very proud of. And so we started Footie Mob.

Steve Fennessy: So, Felipe, how big of a role do these clubs play in and not just the success of Atlanta United, but the success of the league?

Felipe Cardenas: Yes. I mean, not every MLS club has a devout supporters' culture. I think if you go to the Pacific Northwest, Portland, Seattle are two teams that have a long history of having had a professional soccer team in the lower divisions for decades. And then those teams rose up and became MLS teams and they brought that supporters' culture with them. And so they've always been well-supported and they understand what supporters’ culture means to MLS and how they support their teams. I think what's really cool on Atlanta United is the fact that they were a new team with not a lot of history of soccer in the city at a modern professional level. And right away, it just felt like they were going to be really well-supported. And I think Atlanta has shown that their supporters' culture is one of the richest in MLS.

Steve Fennessy: OK, Felipe, so let's go back to the beginning of this season. It's February and on the very first regular season game up in Nashville, Josef Martinez suffers a season ending injury.

Announcer: Big concern for Atlanta United, the most prolific goal-scorer this league has seen in a three-year stretch.

Steve Fennessy: Kind of felt like an omen.

Felipe Cardenas: Well, first, with Josef Martinez, you know, being ruled out with a season-ending knee injury in February was one of the biggest blows that any MLS team could possibly imagine having to deal with. One of the best players, if not the best striker in the league.

Steve Fennessy: Well, and besides losing Josef Martinez for the season, Coach de Boer had also seen the front office trade some of his marquee players, right?

Felipe Cardenas: In my interview with Frank de Boer from just a few weeks ago, it did very much sound like he felt handcuffed. And he did tell me that he'd agreed with some of those decisions, but there were quite a few that he did not agree with because they were important players like Julian Gressel, the relationship that he had with Josef Martinez. You know, Julian Gressel has the Atlanta United record for most assists All-Time. It's a  — it's a young team, but still that's a significant stat point. The fact that he had to deliver on these expectations with a roster that was not as talented as he had, it made it a lot harder for him to get the results that the Club expected.

Steve Fennessy: When we come back, how Atlanta United players face the prospect of returning to play in the middle of a pandemic. How their performance led to the firing of their coach. And the decision to refuse to play on Wednesday of this week. This is Georgia Today.

[INTERLUDE]

Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today, we're talking about Atlanta United's crazy season with Felipe Cardenas, a staff writer with The Athletic. So Felipe, after the season's on hiatus for months, the MLS decides to resume play with all of the teams in the entire league together in Orlando in this kind of  — kind of bubble. That's what they call it.

MLS Promotional Video: MLS is back.The 2020 season resumes with a new cup-Style competition. All 26 teams will meet in the MLS Is Back Tournament held under strict safety measures.

Steve Fennessy: Where they can ostensibly play safely, but with no fans. What was the reaction of the players to this idea and to this eventuality?

Felipe Cardenas: Yeah, I remember that day, March 11, 2020, when the NBA, I mean, they canceled their season. And I think we all understood as reporters covering soccer in America that this was going to affect the sport in North America radically and drastically and in bad ways, because this is a  — this is a league that relies heavily on the on-product, in-game product.

Steve Fennessy: As opposed to, say, TV revenue.

Felipe Cardenas: Yes. As opposed to TV revenue. There still is not a TV deal for MLS. It's  — it's something that will be happening in 2021. And so much of the league's success and income really comes from the game. And fans go into the games and it's very much that type of experience. And so there was this  — this uncertainty about what this season was going to look like. I remember talking to colleagues and thinking  — you know, and even players at the time that we  — you know  — we didn't think there would be an MLS season in 2020. And then eventually, you know, this MLS Is Back Tournament in Orlando, you know, came about.

Steve Fennessy: So let's talk a little bit about the MLS Is Back Tournament. What was that tournament, exactly?

Felipe Cardenas: MLS Is Back was a huge, you know, a huge endeavor for the League because you had over 700 players staying at the Disney Resorts in Orlando and then they were going to play this knockout  — group-stage knockout-style tournament. It became the biggest tournament— I think they won a Guinness Book  — or a Guinness World Record for like the biggest type of bubble tournament in the history of sports.

Steve Fennessy: So they lose all three games in Orlando. They don't, in fact, score a single goal and they come back to Atlanta. And then you mentioned that Frank de Boer, in your story, was heading into a training facility for what he thought was sort of a regular meeting and then what happened?

Felipe Cardenas: So, yeah, he was expecting to prepare  — this is a Friday morning and he was expecting to go to that training facility to get tested for COVID. You know, meet with his staff and prepare for a Monday morning training session. So he clearly believed that regardless of the fact that they had been eliminated after three matches, not scoring any goals, and playing poorly, he could turn this around. He was asked to go to the training facility by Carlos Bocanegra and when he arrived, he had a meeting with both Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra, and he was unexpectedly let go. Now during that conversation, he eventually agreed to parting ways and it was mutual.

Darren Eales: And it was clear, you know, from my perspective that the signs were there that from a direction of travel, it was time to make a change.

Steve Fennessy: Atlanta United President Darren Eales described last month when he realized it was time to part ways with Manager Frank de Boer.

Darren Eales: And look, I think it's not something that was done lightly. You know, it's a difficult decision to make a decision like we did. But, you know, we've got to make those tough decisions.

Steve Fennessy: So Frank de Boer is replaced with interim coach Stephen Glass, who was, at that point, Head Coach of Atlanta United II, which is sort of like their Triple A team. So Glass is very familiar with the culture of the club, right? Felipe, set us up for last Saturday: It's the first game for Atlanta United back at Mercedes Benz Stadium, albeit an empty one. Were you there?

Felipe Cardenas: I was not there. I chose to cover the team and the game and continue to cover the team remotely. The way Atlanta United approached it, I think in a unique way, is that they did pipe in sound during that match against Nashville, which were crowd chants, like Atlanta United supporter chants.

Alan Green: Take three on the 25th season of Major League Soccer. A new look Atlanta United back at Mercedes Benz Stadium for the first time since March 7. It’s been a 68-day absence from this stadium. It does feel strange. The Five Stripe Faithful, you are missed.

Steve Fennessy: Clearly, not playing in front of their fans was, you know, a challenge for them emotionally.

Brad Guzan: In terms of playing at an empty Benz. Yeah, it was— it was  — certainly had a strange feeling to it.

Steve Fennessy: Here’s Atlanta United Captain Brad Guzan describing what it was like to play in that stadium without the 70,000 screaming fans.

Brad Guzan: You know, we  — we missed our fans tremendously. You know, I think they know what they mean to us. We certainly know what they mean to us, but we know that they're with us from start to finish. And  — and hopefully it won't be too long before we're able to have them back cheering us on in person.

Steve Fennessy: Has the team given you or any reporters any insight as to if they'll be allowing any fans back into these home games? I know that at least in Dallas, they did allow a certain number of fans in for a recent game. Is there any talk about them doing that here in Atlanta?

Felipe Cardenas: Atlanta has made the decision that in this first phase of these games from now —from August, all throughout August— there will not be any fans at Mercedes Benz Stadium. They have also sent out a press release saying that Phase Two, which is undetermined, but what they expect to be a Phase Two of additional games throughout September — If those games happen, Atlanta United will not have fans either. So I think that says a lot about the state of COVID-19 in Georgia, the fact that the mayor of Atlanta has also been very critical of the way that the state of Georgia has managed the virus. And that's what the league said, that the teams would have to get together with their local governments, with the CDC, follow protocols and make that decision. Clearly, Atlanta United has made a decision based on the current state of the virus here in Georgia.

Steve Fennessy: So, Felipe, last Saturday, Atlanta United resumed its season at Mercedes Benz Stadium, one to nil, and then this past Wednesday traveled down to Miami to face off against Inter Miami. What happened?

Felipe Cardenas: It's a developing story and well, that The Athletic we're still working on to provide a better timeline. But what we do know is the hours before kickoff before that eight o'clock kickoff on Wednesday night between Atlanta United and Inter Miami, the Milwaukee Bucks and the rest of the NBA, the WNBA, and even some Major League Baseball clubs and games were canceled in a sign of protest regarding the police shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, of Jacob Blake.

Steve Fennessy: I know that Atlanta United has in the past months, they've worn Black Lives Matter shirts. You know, they've  — they've expressed solidarity with that movement. Do you know in terms of when this  — the idea specifically for this came about to just not play?

Felipe Cardenas: Yeah, I think two things. One, the Black Lives Matter movement, as it relates to Major League Soccer, I think is a big part of this story because at the MLS Is Back Tournament moment, that movement really, I think, took off league-wide. And it was in response to everything that's been happening around the country in regards to systemic racism, police brutality, even police shootings and police killings.  And what happened on Wednesday night is another example of how the Black Players for Change, which is a new organization that's player-led within MLS, once again organized and reached out to different players, different clubs, and got together in order to make this happen, which was a decision amongst the players to not play on Wednesday night.

Broadcast: You're seeing live images inside Inter Miami CF Stadium on an incredibly emotional evening across the country and the world. Both Major League Soccer and Atlanta United releasing a statement again condemning racism and social injustice after the shooting of Jacob Blake. The game is not going to go ahead this evening between Inter Miami and Atlanta United.

Steve Fennessy: Is there any indication so far about who on the Atlanta United squad is sort of taking the lead on this issue? Is there anyone who stepped up?

Felipe Cardenas: So once the game was postponed between Atlanta United and Inter Miami, I think all of us were waiting to hear from players. And as a reporter, we were reaching out to players that we could. But both clubs decided to not allow players to speak to the media. In Atlanta United's case, they just simply drove that to the airport and traveled back to Atlanta. But the club did release a statement saying, quote, “in solidarity with the black community, with our players, our city and our fans in this fight for justice,” essentially saying that they agreed and supported the players’ decision to not play. Now, the only player that has stepped up, essentially, and spoken has been Jeff Larentowicz, one of the captains. And his statement was part of this press release that Atlanta United released. And Jeff Larentowicz said, according to the statement, quote, “We want to let all the fans know that we made a collective decision between both locker rooms to not play tonight to stand up and fight for social change.” So I think what's important for the fans of both the NBA, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer and the WNBA as well, is just to understand why this is happening. I think that is what the players want everyone to know. That is their message. Please understand why we're doing this and why it's important, why it's important to have a voice. And so that's what I as a journalist would ask fans that may be frustrated or may not understand why this is happening again. And it's perhaps a good opportunity to go read, educate yourself and just try to understand the perspective of these players.

Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Felipe Cardenas, a staff writer at The Athletic Atlanta United's next game. At least the next one that's scheduled is this Saturday afternoon, August 29th vs. Orlando. No word yet on whether it will proceed. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show at GPB.org/GeorgiaToday or anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcast. Drop us a line at Georgia Today at GBP.org. Our producer is Sean Powers. Thanks for listening, see you next week.