This isn’t just any new year. 2017 will bring a moment we’ve all been waiting for, a moment three years in the making.
2016 was a monumental year for Atlanta United. Last January, the club signed their first player in Alexander Tambakis. Throughout the year, Atlanta impressed the rest of MLS with the additions of Andrew Carleton, Tito Villalba, Kenwyne Jones and Miguel Almiron. However, no acquisition was more prominent than the hiring of Tata Martino as head coach, a renowned trainer with experience at some of the top clubs in the world.
Ultimately, 2016 was about Atlanta United implementing a philosophy unfamiliar to the rest of MLS. This is a club that wants to base the team around young, attack-minded players, and they aren’t afraid to spend in order to do so. If the club can live up to the lofty expectations they’ve set for themselves in their inaugural season, 2016 could go down as the most important year in Atlanta United’s history.
They officially kick off on March 5th against the New York Red Bulls at Bobby Dodd Stadium. To get ready for 2017, how about some fun, and downright bold, predictions on what will transpire during this historical year for Atlanta United? All of these predictions are purely opinion-based and speculation.
At least five academy players will make an appearance for the senior team
Atlanta United’s academy is loaded with talent, and Martino has shown in the past that he’s not afraid to dip into a club’s youth system. He played three teenagers during his lone season in charge of Newell’s Old Boys(insert ironic joke) and five academy players while at Barcelona.
Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin should make a couple of appearances, whether that’s in an MLS match or the U.S. Open Cup. Look for young defenders like Edwin Figueroa, Carlos Asensio and Will Crain to try and break their way into a back line that doesn’t have a lot of depth at the moment. Although Atlanta United already has a solid trio of forwards in Kenwyne Jones, Brandon Vazquez and Romario Williams, youth players like Patrick Okonkwo, Zyen Jones and James Brighton have shown plenty of promise. It would be a little surprising to not see at least one of those strikers make an appearance here and there.
Atlanta United will struggle the first half of the season
Perhaps this isn’t terribly bold, but considering the hype that has surrounded Atlanta United over the past few months, it’s probably important to remember that at the end of the day this club is still an expansion side. These players only have a small amount of time from now until March to get to know one another, build chemistry and attempt to perfect Martino’s tactics. Expect quite a few poor performances early on.
Atlanta United will make the playoffs their inaugural season
“Woah, what just happened? I thought Atlanta United was going to struggle the first half of the season?”
They will, but they’ll rebound nicely in the second half. Plenty of clubs have done it in the past, and Atlanta United will become the first expansion side to qualify for the playoffs since the Seattle Sounders in 2009. I won’t jump on the “2017 MLS Champs” bandwagon just yet. However, with the guidance this club has, both in the front office and on the training ground, it’s really tough to imagine Atlanta United not finishing the regular season in the top half of the Eastern Conference. After that, who knows what could happen.
Atlanta United’s defense will outperform their attack
Most of the talk this off-season has centered around Almiron, Villalba and Jones. What about Greg Garza, Michael Parkhurst, Zach Loyd and Mark Bloom? Defenders need love too.
In all seriousness, assuming those four will make up our starting backline, expect them to be a lot more impressive than people are giving them credit for. The MLS experience of Parkhurst and Loyd is crucial for any center back pairing in this league. Throw in the ability of Garza and Bloom to push up the field and counter in a Martino system, and we could see a lot of praise come their way.
The biggest worry is the fitness of Loyd and Bloom. Loyd’s last MLS appearance came in June, where he suffered a concussion and broken nose. Bloom made seven appearances last season after missing the entire 2015 season with a series of injuries, including a torn quad. Hopefully the two can stay healthy as they look to become key members of the starting XI.
Kenwyne Jones is still a question mark for the attack. His lack of playing time(three club appearances since June) and a string of less than stellar performances with the Trinidad & Tobago national team is a cause for concern. If Jones doesn’t score for Atlanta United, who will? Neither Villalba nor Almiron are natural goalscorers, Brandon Vazquez is talented but unproven, and Jacob Peterson likely isn’t the answer when it comes to the left winger spot. Hopefully some additional attacking reinforcements are brought in during the transfer window.
Tito Villalba will be Atlanta United’s Player of the Season
Villalba has really fallen under the radar since he signed with the club in July. With all the player announcements that have come recently, it’s easy to forget about one of the first acquisitions. However, the 22-year-old will absolutely thrive under Martino.
Obviously we still don’t exactly know what Martino’s tactics are going to be. We know he’s adaptable when it comes to the formation, and we know that he can alternate between a methodical, tiki-taka style of play and a counterattacking based team depending on the strengths of the opponent. It just so happens that Villalba is just as adaptable.
During his time at San Lorenzo, Villalba showed he could use his otherworldly pace to breeze through full backs on the counter. His speed has been his most talked about attribute since signing with Atlanta United. What he doesn’t get as much credit for is his creative passing, as he totaled 13 assists with San Lorenzo to go along with 15 goals. That knack for playmaking, as well as his pace, will do wonders for the club regardless of the tactics Martino implements on a match-to-match basis.
Martino is going to twiddle with formations early on in the season. Villalba’s versatility gives Martino a player he can rely on to dissect the opposing back line in a number of different ways throughout the tactical transitions that are bound to happen, something other players could struggle with. His ability to adapt to different styles of play is what will make him the best player on Atlanta United and one of the best in MLS.
Do you agree with these predictions? Give us some of your own in the comments.