The former Argentina defender lasted just 13 games before his controversial, and at times against-the-rules, training methods came to light
As reports began to trickle out regarding what was really going on behind the scenes at Atlanta United this season, what originally seemed like a tricky situation soon began to look like a truly ugly one.
Last week began with a disgruntled superstar, an Atlanta icon in Josef Martinez being pushed out of the team.
It continued on with another poor performance in a loss to the New England Revolution, the latest bad result for a team that expects to be among the best in MLS.
And it ended with reports of a grievance filed by the MLS Players Association for an environment so toxic, that players allegedly were not even allowed to drink water at times in training.
And so ended the Gabriel Heinze era in Atlanta, after just 13 games.
In those 13 games, the reputations of both the coach and the club have taken a hit after what can only be described as a catastrophic tenure that will take a lot of hard work to undo.
Heinze’s dismissal came on Sunday, with the club pointing to “a variety of issues relating to the day-to-day leadership of the team”. At the time of his firing, Atlanta United sit 10th in the Eastern Conference, with 13 points from as many matches.
At a club the level of Atlanta United, such results are unacceptable, and any coach not keeping the club near the top of MLS will feel his seat get hot.
But Heinze’s seat went from hot to scalding to, eventually, removed from under him this week, not due to the on-field results, but rather because of a series of off-field missteps that saw the club come under fire from the league itself and nearly cost the team its most iconic star.
“Out of respect for Gabi we’re not going to air everything out,” technical director and vice president, Carlos Bocanegra, said following Heinze’s sacking. “We’ve had a number of concerning issues over the past several months and the process of evaluating them brought us to this decision today.
“It was clear this decision needed to be made.”
Added club president Darren Eales: “I want to be clear, the actual performance on the pitch wasn’t the factor here.”
In the wake of Heinze’s departure, details have begun to emerge regarding the former Manchester United defender’s coaching methods, which had earned him both praise and criticism in South America.
Throughout his young coaching career, Heinze had earned a reputation for his no-nonsense approach, as he worked players hard in training.
It is not an approach that is unfamiliar, as there are plenty of successful coaches that push their teams to their limits. But there is a line, and Heinze crossed it time and time again.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Major League Soccer Players Association filed a grievance with the league for multiple infractions related to how Heinze handled the team’s training schedule.
Fox Sports went on to offer some details of those infractions, reporting that Heinze did not allow players to have guaranteed off days, while the coach also allegedly limited how much water players could consume during training.
According to The Athletic, that was implemented to mimic the number of water breaks in a game and was done away with following an internal discussion, although Heinze often ignored club traininers and medical personnel.
Players were also required to report to training whenever the coach beckoned, with one source telling Fox that playing for Atlanta United under Heinze was “hell every day for six months”.
In the end, Atlanta were reportedly fined by the league, although Heinze’s constant training sessions continued despite rules requiring off days.
That grueling training schedule may have contributed to a number of injuries. At least eight key players have missed games for Atlanta United this season, leaving them to field a weakened squad throughout the MLS campaign.
One player that was not absent due to injury this past weekend was Martinez, the club’s star striker, who has already earned legendary status in Atlanta while becoming the face of the club.
One of the best goalscorers in MLS history, the 28-year-old striker has repeatedly said he would like to retire in Atalanta, saying that the club is his own personal Barcelona or Real Madrid.
But this week, it became apparent that Martinez may be heading towards the exit due to a falling out with Heinze.
Upon returning to the team after testing positive from the coronavirus ahead of the start of the Copa America, the Venezuela striker was diagnosed with a heart ailment, he revealed on Monday. But, after recovering from that issue and despite having the blessing of club doctors, Heinze froze him out of the team while forcing him to continue training on his own.
“He doesn’t have any kind of fitness problem. It’s my decision that he train away from the team,” Heinze told reporters last week. “He’ll continue to train on his own.”
“I have my reasons,” he added, “and I’m very clear on those reasons.”
In the lead-up to the weekend’s loss to New England, The Athletic revealed that the relationship between the coach and striker had reached a breaking point, with Martinez fully prepared to leave the club at the next opportunity. The two were not on speaking terms in the days leading up to Heinze’s exit.
With Martinez in the stands, the Atlanta attack sputtered yet again. Averaging exactly one goal a game so far, Atlanta were shut out at home in the 1-0 defeat, despite having 61 per cent possession.
Several times throughout the game, the crowd could be heard chanting for Martinez, including a seventh-minute show of support for the striker.
Just hours after Heinze’s firing, it was confirmed that Martinez had been welcomed back to the team ahead of Wednesday’s match against FC Cincinnati.
“I think we have to move forward,” Martinez said through a translator when asked about Heinze. “What’s in the past, is in the past.
“We respect all the decisions of the coaching staff. But I think the most important thing now is for us to lift our heads up to continue moving forward, and we have to work together as a group to try to return to winning games.”
He added: “I think it’s about bringing the joy back to the city, to the fan base, and to ourselves as players to get back to our way.”
In order to rediscover that joy, Bocanegra and Eales will have to reckon with the fact that the club has made two colossal mistakes in their last two coaching hires.
After seeing Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino lead the club to the top of MLS before taking over Mexico, the club whiffed on Frank de Boer, whose big-name European pedigree overshadowed his lack of coaching success.
It proved a failure, lasting just a year-and-a-half before the club admitted defeat.
Now, just a year later, the club sits in the same position after seeing Heinze’s hiring turn into another horrible misstep.
The pressure is now on Bocanegra and Eales to not fumble another coaching hire. Atlanta is a club that will no doubt have plenty of potential candidates, both domestic and international, but those in charge cannot afford to get it all wrong once again.
The pair have had plenty of goodwill for their roles in helping construct Atlanta United’s MLS Cup-winning team, but overcoming yet another coaching misstep could prove too much for them to survive.
“We have to get the next hire right,” Eales acknowledged. “We know that’s important. … We’re going to do our due diligence to find the right fit.”
Heinze was clearly the wrong fit, which both Eales and Bocanegra alluded to. His reputation will certainly take a hit, especially in the U.S., but the former defender may very well pop up at another club at some point down the line.
At just 43, Heinze is still a young coach, one that built up plenty of praise in South America at Argentinos Juniors and Velez Sarsfield before his Atlanta United disaster.
As for Martinez, it looks like he will stay in Atlanta for the long term. On Tuesday, he reiterated his commitment to the club, saying he fully intends to lead it into its next era.
“I have this year then I have two more years [on my contract],” Martinez said in English, foregoing his translator to get his point across. “The first time I came here, I said, ‘This is my club, this is my city and I love to be here.’ Obviously, I want to retire here. I love this club.”
The good news is that Martinez, Atlanta’s superstar is on board. With him leading the way, Atlanta can and should remain one of the best teams in MLS, one that attracts star talent from all over the world.
But keeping it there will require the club to learn from its mistakes as Eales, Bocanegra and Atlanta United cannot afford a third strike in the club’s hunt for a head coach.
As Atlanta looks to hire its third coach in less than three years, there is no more room for error.