You remember these guys, right?
The MLS is Back! Atlanta United is among 26 -- whoop, scratch that -- 24 Major League Soccer outfits down in the Footie Bubble at Disney's very Wide World of Sports, participating in a World Cup-style tournament to reintroduce the season.
I really didn't want to jinx it by celebrating too early. But IF ALL GOES WELL (takes a grain or two of rock salt), our Five Stripes will take the field, against the New York Red Bulls, tonight before a live national audience (8:00 PM Eastern, FOX, TUDN, the old Univision Deportes, and 92.9 FM in ATL).
Too many players and staff came down with The Rona for FC Dallas and upstart club Nashville SC, so they have been declared out of the running. The group stage games, which began on Wednesday night and continue through July 23, will also count in the standings for the Regular Season, which will re-commence (Rock Salt!) at MLS home sites like The Benz after the Tourney championship game. If you want more of a local flavor for the game call, Mike Conti will cover the blow-by-blow on 92.9 FM radio, while watching on video from The Benz.
ATLUTD is "Group E" for this tournament, which has them playing FC Cincinnati next Thursday and Columbus Crew SC on July 21. Sixteen clubs will advance to the Knockout Stage, which begins on July 25 and runs (Sodium Chloride!!!) through the tournament Final on August 11.
Of course there's no Josef Martinez (out until at least late in the calendar year due to injury), which means players like Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez will continue trying to step up as scoring threats, and coach Frank de Boer's heavy passing tactics won't have Atlanta wishing too much upon a star down in Disney World. But the Red Bulls are without a few familiar names of the past too, like Bradley Wright-Phillips (now with LAFC), Kemar Lawrence (back home in Jamaica), and goalkepper Luis Robles (fell short late in the MLS re-opener against Orlando City on Wednesday).
NYRB's tinkering with a new formation, new contributors (although watch out for the wily Kaku out on the wing), and a new pressing style that they hope might mimic the freewheeling fun Atlanta fans enjoyed under former coach Tata Martino. The Piscataway Press, perhaps? As new arrival Fernando Meza, an Argentinian veteran with a decade of Latin American play under his belt, joins forces with the superb Miles Robinson, Atlanta's reformulated defensive backline will want to help keep goalkeeper Brad Guzan's kit as clean as his sheets, tonight and throughout match play.
While Atlanta has come into MLS looking like world-beaters at times during their short history, they have yet to defeat the Red Bulls (0-4-2 vs. NYRB, excepting the 2018 "upset" win in the Eastern Conference final round), coached by Chris Armas, on the pitch during the regular season. Even over three seasons in, there's still a first time for everything!
Let's Go United!