Before Atlanta United joined the league, the argument about the top expansion team in MLS history started and ended with the 2009 Seattle Sounders.
The Sounders are the only expansion team to make the playoffs in their first year. They finished the regular season with 47 points from 30 matches, good for 4th in the Western Conference and 5th in the Supporters Shield race. Seattle went on to lose a two-game series to the Houston Dynamo in the Western Conference semis, which at the time were the opening round of the playoffs.
Seattle also won the U.S. Open Cup. For me to consider Atlanta United superior, they’d have to outperform the 2009 Sounders in the regular season AND advance past the first playoff round. If Atlanta accomplishes both, I’d say they clinch the expansion team crown.
Unfortunately, comparing the to two sides is difficult because they played in different eras, and the 2009 MLS regular season was 4 games shorter than it is today. To make an apples-to-apples assessment of regular season performance, I’ll use points-per-match (PPM). (True soccer data analysts like @TiotalFootball are probably screaming “NOOOOOO!” reading this article…but I’m thankful the liberal arts majors are sticking it out.)
Through the first 24 matches of the season, Atlanta United has been the better team, with 36 points compared to Seattle’s 34, or 1.5 PPM to 1.417.
But Seattle finished their season strong, going 4-1-1 in their last six matches to earn 13 points. I’ve broken out these different season segments, along with the season total, in the table below.
The 2009 Sounders finished with 1.567 points per match. To beat this, Atlanta will need at least 54 points by the end of the season. (1.567 Points Per Match x 34 Matches = 53.28 Points)
So…to become THE GREATEST MLS (regular season expansion) TEAM OF ALL TIME (based on my admittedly limited criteria), Atlanta needs 18 points out of their final 10 matches.
For Atlanta to do it, they could finish out the season in different ways, either by going 5-2-3, or 6-4-0. Or even 4-0-6. Basically, they need at least 4 wins, but realistically they’ll need 5 or more.
It’ll be challenging considering their schedule includes tough home games at The Benz against Montreal and Toronto FC, and an away match against the New York Red Bulls.
But do I think they have a shot? Absolutely.
(UPDATE: I failed to mention I’m starting with the second time the league expanded from 10 to 12 teams with the 2005 Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake, and not the first expansion in 1998 when the Chicago Fire and now-defunct Miami Fusion joined. I’ve always considered the Fire one of the original teams since they came before the contraction back down to 10 teams and joined so soon after the league’s founding. Feel free to disagree in the comments!)