Frank de Boer was not hired to fix Atlanta United.
“This is about evolution, not revolution,” Darren Eales said after the Dutchman’s appointment.
De Boer arrived in MLS with a polarising reputation. His time in Ajax was auspicious and saw him develop a number of the club’s young talent. His aim at Ajax was to fix a club and restore an identity. At Crystal Palace and Inter Milan, it was again about correcting problems and ushering in something altogether different. Both of those spells were brief and ended with De Boer’s dismissal.
For that reason, Atlanta represented a different challenge.
“I will not try to change everything because what’s good is good. Of course, what I think we can change, we will. But the hardware is there. We’re going to update it a little bit, but not change it a lot,” De Boer said.
The first few months of De Boer’s Atlanta tenure were mixed. It took until his fifth league game for a win to arrive, against the New England Revolution. He would then go on to lose just one of his next six games. The catalyst for the turn around was a meeting between players and staff in early April — a chance to air grievances.
“The chemistry between us, the staff, and the players wasn’t there yet,” de Boer told Yahoo Sports. “The attack was very good last year. But we thought we could get much better at defending. So that’s what we were heavily focused on in practice. But they didn’t enjoy all that defending.”
In the same month, De Boer gave that interview the results began to slip again. In late June Atlanta started a run of five games with just one win. Once again, something had to change; only this time, it wasn’t the feeling, it was the formation.
“It’s crazy, because I’ve never seen a formation calm so many people down,” Justin Meram said recently. “We’re adding more defenders, in a way, but we’re more attacking. I think it’s just the way that these guys were comfortable playing.”
De Boer has been eager for Atlanta to display patient build-up through short passing and the 3-5-2 makes the best of that while offering Atlanta attacking versatility.
The attacking duo of Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez can choose to sit narrow, alongside Josef Martinez, which in turn opens space for the on-rushing wingbacks to attack, or they can drift out wide to link up with the wingbacks to get in behind opposition defences.
“I’ve adapted my style and now, playing as a wingback, I’m facing guys more,” Meram said. “As a winger … I had to be a little bit more creative. Now, if they’re going to come and fly at me, they better win the ball because I’m going to either one-two or move quickly with my first touch.”
In the first 20 games of the season Atlanta only mustered 28 goals. In the seven matches since they have 18 goals. Defensively, the team have kept five clean sheets in that period, with the anomaly being their enthralling 4-3 defeat against league leaders LAFC.
The run has not only seen Atlanta solidify their position atop the Eastern Conference, but also collect silverware. First, they beat Mexican side Club America to lift the Campeones Cup and followed that up with a victory over Minnesota United in the US Open Cup.
There have also been small tweaks along the course of the season. Atlanta has over half-a-dozen South American players. For them, the last practice before a match should be loose and relaxing. The preference is to play a game, with the intention being to lighten the mood.
“I hate it,” de Boer told Yahoo Sports. “But they love it. So what matters more?”
Coaching is a skill that requires time and dedication to master. Very few (if any) have all the answers when they begin, and for those who learn lessons the hard way, a thick skin and an open mind are vital. De Boer’s acceptance that you cannot control everything proves he has grown as a coach.
At 25, Frank De Boer had decided he never wanted to be a coach. By 28, his stance had softened somewhat, and a future in the technical area seemed more appealing.
“By the time I was 34 or 35, and your playing career is coming to an end, you suddenly run into the reality of it,” he said.
In Atlanta, he hit reality far quicker. There have undeniably been bumps in the road this season, but by learning to adapt, both De Boer and Atlanta have built something new and exciting, whilst delivering on Eales’ promise of evolution.