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If we’re fortunate to be around long enough, there may come a season when Atlanta United FC becomes just another run-of-the-mill Major League Soccer franchise, just another sports club going through the motions in this championship-starved town.
We are nowhere near having one of those seasons. Following up on a near-magical debut as an expansion franchise, Atlanta United is going full-bore after the MLS Cup in 2018.
In 2017, skeptical local fans dipped their toes into the pro soccer scene. They found the water to be quite warm, especially when the goals started coming in bunches. Now, scores of thousands are ready to dive in headfirst for Season #2 at Mercedes Benz Stadium, and Atlanta’s winning water is now at full simmer. Confirmed by near-historic offseason activity under the direction of reigning MLS Executive of the Year Darren Eales, Atlanta United is pulling out all the stops to ensure there will be no sophomore jinx.
One of ATLUTD’s first preseason shots across the bow came in December, when they dished out over a million dollars in allocation money, an MLS record, to Western Conference regular-season leader Portland in exchange for their heart-and-soul midfielder, Darlington Nagbe (above).
Atlanta technical director Carlos Bocanegra noted that Nagbe statistically ranked first in the MLS for “ball retention rate of possession.” While that’s a mouthful, the takeaway is that Atlanta has the potential to dominate offensive play, with the athletic 27-year-old former All-Star keying the attack with his creative dribbling.
Nagbe’s play was integral to the Timbers winning the 2015 MLS Cup, as well as the top seed in a hyper-competitive Western Conference last season. He’s a clean player as well. Nagbe has twice won the MLS Fair Play Award, last receiving the honor in 2015. The last MLS player to have won three in his career? Nagbe’s new teammate, midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, the 34-year-old vet who re-upped with Atlanta during free agency. Cutting down on red and yellow cards can further help ATLUTD control the play on the pitch.
Nagbe has never been a big goal-scorer, but he should be able to help pile on the points with the array of offensive threats manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino can place on the field around him. Josef Martinez (team-high 19 goals) and Miguel Almiron (team-high 13 assists) turned themselves into rock stars in mere months with their thrilling tactics and goal-scoring flair.
Meanwhile, there are the looming, booming legs of new green-card recipient Tito Villalba (team-highs of 44 shots on goal and 4 game-winners), winner of MLS’ 2017 Goal of the Year and one of the league’s speediest attackers. Having finished 2017 just two games behind the 2nd-seed in the MLS East, who knows how much farther ATLUTD could have climbed with Designated Players Josef and Miggy (both members of the All-MLS “Best XI” team for 2017) healthy for the full season alongside Tito?
Atlanta wasn’t done breaking new ground in this league. For the price of an MLS-record $15 million transfer fee to Buenos Aires’ Independiente, young Argentine star Ezequiel Barco (above) gets to don the Five Stripes. By comparison, that amount blew away the old record, a $10 million fee that reigning MLS champion Toronto FC paid to pry free Michael Bradley from Rome back in 2014.
Part of the mindset behind paying such a high price, for Atlanta United, is to elevate the value of its most successful stars, specifically when higher-stature international clubs come calling in attempts to poach the talent off its roster. The football club already spurned eight-figure offers for both Almiron and Martinez in the offseason. Another reason is the Atlanta’s fervent belief that Barco has already proven he’ll be worth the investment.
Touted as one of soccer’s finest South American prospects, Barco shined as a teenaged attacking midfielder in the Copa Sudamericana final, and was elated about the mere prospect of coming to America and becoming a star in Atlanta black-and-red. His flexibility to thrive as either an attacker or a winger gives Coach Tata plenty of formidable frontline options to match up with opponents.
Has it been mentioned, yet, that the Starting XI for Atlanta United might not have room for the reigning MLS Rookie of the Year? Julian Gressel reportedly struggled throughout the preseason for Atlanta, but to have the young German in a reserve right-winger role would be a luxury any club would be thrilled to have at its disposal.
When subbed in, Gressel can form a strong pairing with his fellow German, veteran set-piece specialist Kevin Kratz. Other young prospects, like Andrew Carleton, Chris Goslin, Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu and Miles Robinson will have their chances to shine, but it’s more likely those opportunities will occur with Atlanta United 2, our new USL outfit.
Atlanta had to part ways with a couple key contributors from last season. Yamil Asad was arguably Atlanta’s top set-up man, and his rights were sold to nemesis D.C. United, undoubtedly sparking what was one of the league’s worst offensive outfits. The Five Stripes also bid adieu to its top defensive midfielder, as Carlos Carmona was transferred to a club in his native Chile, allowing him to attend to pressing family health matters. While both will be sorely missed, the newcomers are expected to have a greater impact on the Atlanta offensive attack.
You can’t forget about defense, though, and Atlanta made waves on that end of the pitch as well. Franco Escobar (above) played for one of Coach Tata’s former clubs, Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina, and now he will play in Martino’s key defensive unit. Bocanegra described the 22-year old Escobar as a “physical and versatile defender, capable of playing anywhere along the back line.”
Franco’s inclusion solidifies the line of defenders among Atlanta’s Starting XI, led by the talented Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, 2017 All-Star Greg Garza (re-signed to a multi-year deal), and steady team captain Michael Parkhurst. Bolstering the defensive bench is longtime MLS vet Sal Zizzo, whose assist carried the New York Red Bulls into the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final, and young Venezuelan transfer Jose Hernandez, who also appeared in the Copa Sudamericana and helped lead his Caracas FC side to the Torneo Apertura final.
Having a healthy Almiron, Martinez, and Garza all season long could have made a big difference in 2017, as would Atlanta gaining a steady familiarity with its home pitch. But perhaps nothing could have been more impactful than having its starting goalkeeper available for a full season.
Alec Kann filled in admirably for 18 games from March through June of last season at the net, and the Decatur native returns in a reserve role along with newcomer Mitch Hildebrandt, the 2016 USL Goalkeeper of the Year who starred during the 2017 US Open Cup for FC Cincinnati. But it was the arrival of “Mr. Clean Sheet”, Brad Guzan (above), from international Premier League and USMNT duties last summer, that vaulted Atlanta from a mere offensive novelty to a leaguewide championship-contending threat.
At the 6-foot-4 Guzan’s peak, Atlanta rocked and rolled into September with six shutouts in seven matches, not allowing a single goal for 541 minutes, the sixth-longest scoreless stretch for a keeper in MLS history. Guzan serves beyond miraculous net-minding to quarterback both his team’s defensive positioning and its transition attack. In 2018, his ability to focus fully on his MLS club from the jump should only further calcify the resistance around Atlanta’s 18-yard box.
Sure, 2017 concluded with a disappointing playoff loss, as anyone can succumb to a red-hot goalkeeper in an elimination game. But Atlanta turns into 2018 not only as a MLS Cup favorite, but as marked men. Having seen this team pull record-breaking crowds while making record-breaking moves, the rest of MLS would add a streak of Envy Green to their team colors, if they could.
No one outside of the 404 (or the offices of MLS’ financiers) wants to see Atlanta impose a 1960s-70s Dallas Cowboys effect on the rest of the league. Newer MLS clubs have struggled to make splashes immediately out of the gate, while the more historic teams don’t want to be supplanted as a flagship franchise in the space of just two years.
Defending champion Toronto FC, coming off a historically successful season that followed a dozen years of hard knocks, doesn’t want to find itself sharing the media spotlight with an upbeat, upstart rival threatening to become a cult phenomenon not seen since the New York Cosmos of the 1970s.
Reaching the MLS Playoffs, and then shedding Atlanta’s longstanding sports postseason hex, is paramount. But maybe the bigger picture is, in every game, Atlanta United must remind everyone why, in town, they should be the team to cheer and, everywhere else, why they should be the team to fear.
Might as well get a thread going!
The inaugural Major League Soccer regular season for Atlanta United FC kicks off tomorrow evening, over here at sold-out Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium, versus the New York Red Bulls (7:30 PM Eastern, FS1 nationally, 92.9 FM in ATL).
In the NBA offseason, my sports dollar historically gets split up between the WNBA Dream and the Atlanta Silverbacks, a formerly professional soccer club playing a few levels down from the top-tier MLS. While I've watched a lot of local soccer, it's always been just for casual summertime fun, without really learning much more about the sport itself.
I'm hoping my immersion will become more serious with the MLS in town. I've already read more about "Tifo"s and 4-2-3-1 formations and "tiki-taka" than I ever thought I'd care to know. I'm hoping a few vastly more knowledgeable Squawkers will chime in during the course of this season.
Around many parts of town, you'll find there's a huge build-up of support for #ATLUTD; flags flying from homes and gardens, merchandise from the Atlantic Station team store flying off the shelves.
Naturally, the excitement dies down once an expansion team starts losing LOTS of games. However, there are quite a few prognosticators comfortable with the notion that this outfit is not only going to compete well in its first year together, but even has a chance to make the MLS playoffs. It's not unprecedented; the Chicago Fire was the MLS Cup and the US Open Cup in its first year of operation back in 1998.
Stuff to Know:
* It's Arthur Blank's foray into a whole other brand of football. The Falcons owner championed the expansion of MLS Soccer to the ATL, originally in 2008, but more earnestly in 2012, when local momentum built to construct a multi-purpose stadium suitable for both pro football and pro soccer.
* The team's Training Ground and headquarters is slated to open next month, in Marietta.
* Along with Atlanta United, Minnesota United will expand the MLS to 22 clubs this season. Atlanta will compete in the MLS Eastern Conference alongside the Red Bulls, NYC FC, Chicago, Columbus, D.C. United, Montreal, New England, Orlando, Philadelphia, and Toronto. Their regular season schedule runs through mid-October. [ https://www.atlutd.com/schedule ]
* When not airing nationally, Fox Sports South/Fox Sports Southeast will carry many ATLUTD games. Spanish-language broadcasters Univision Deportes and Unimas will air a handful of games during the season as well. 92.9 FM is aiming to become the flagship radio station, but is running a 3-hour pregame show in the interim. [ http://www.dirtysouthsoccer.com/2017/2/21/14684738/atlanta-united-tv-schedule-2017-time-full ]
* British-born, US-collegiate former All-American star Darren Eales serves as the team's President. He was previously an executive with the London-area side Tottenham Hotspur FC.
* The "Technical Director" (GM) of the team is Carlos Bocanegra, a former MLS Rookie of the Year and two-time MLS Defender of the Year winner as a player. He was also a six-time captain of the USA Men's Soccer team.
* Former Argentine midfielder Gerardo "Tata" Martino is the Head Coach. He briefly managed FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi's Argentinian national team, which reached the final of 2015 and 2016's Copa America tournaments before losing on penalty kicks.
* Team captain is defender Michael Parkhurst, a former Wake Forest star who was the 2005 MLS Rookie of the Year and 2007 MLS Defender of the Year. Before getting traded, Parkhurst previously played for Columbus, where he was an All-Star back in 2014.
* Starting at goalkeeper is Alec Kann, a Decatur product. I got to see him a couple years back when he was with the Charlotte Eagles in the USL. He broke into MLS with Chicago in 2013, and was acquired via the MLS Expansion Draft from Sporting Kansas City.
* MLS announced this week they will expand team rosters from 28 to 30, allowing teams to designate two spots for homegrown talents, like Locust Grove's 16-year-old Chris Goslin [pictured up top] who come up through the team's youth system.
* Mercedes-Benz Stadium will host its first MLS event on July 30, with Atlanta United facing off with Orlando City SC. Its estimated capacity of 40,000 doubles that of most MLS clubs. In the meantime, fans are encouraged to park at Atlantic Station (off 17th Street) and catch a free gameday shuttle over to nearby Bobby Dodd (off 10th Street), which hosts the team's first 8 home games. [ http://atlanticstation.com/2017/02/16/atlanta-united-game-day-shuttle/ ]
* No sport has fan clubs as dedicated and fervent as those in pro soccer, and ATLUTD has several. Most prominent is @curtmcgirt's Terminus Legion, who have a strong presence at soccer games all over the area. Other fan clubs include Resurgence, Faction, and my favorite name by far, Footie Mob. [ http://terminuslegion.com/ ] [ https://footiemob.club/ ]
* The easiest way for me to catch up on the team's ongoing activities and news is through SB Nation's dedicated team site, Dirty South Soccer. [ http://www.dirtysouthsoccer.com/ ]
Here's a taste of what some experts are saying about this club's prospects in its first season:
I love the Silverbacks (shameless plug: the NASL's Soccer Bowl will be here in November) and would miss the heck out of Silverbacks Park. But as long as Arthur Blank's behind this effort, I suspect this would turn into a nice draw at the new stadium by 2018.
What would you prefer as a name for an Atlanta MLS team? I can't really get with the Sporting/FC/Real/United names. I like "Aliens," but for various reasons I know that would never go over well.