Last week, Atlanta United achieved one of its season’s goals by qualifying for the 2019 CONCACAF Champions League. For those new to club soccer in the Western Hemisphere, this a great honor and difficult challenge for next season. Much like the popular UEFA Champions League in Europe, qualifying clubs will have to navigate a tournament against the top teams from other leagues, while simultaneously vying for their domestic championship. Atlanta United now has the difficult task of fielding competitive teams for the CCL, while still fighting weekly for the Supporter’s Shield and MLS Cup.
Toronto FC won the MLS Cup and finished the 2017 season with the most points in MLS history. As they went “all in” for the CCL this season and failed to win it, their 2018 MLS campaign suffered due to the additional games and fatigue, and they failed to even qualify for the MLS playoffs.
Embarking on a CCL campaign will challenge United in ways that this organization has yet to experience. So, what are the 2019 goals? How does Atlanta United navigate this new challenge? Who is going to be here to decide our fate?
First, let’s talk goals. A CCL championship adds a prestige to a program that domestic trophies just can’t match. Ask any European club; they would sell their souls and sabotage their domestic campaigns for a UEFA Champions League Trophy. If Atlanta United won the CCL, that would be a feat that no MLS club has ever achieved and raise the status of the organization in a way that wouldn’t be attainable by any other means. For these reasons, the Five Stripes should do exactly what 2018 Toronto did: Sell out for the CCL, even if it costs them in the MLS.
With that goal in mind, how does a manager navigate this challenge with the all the extra games? Well, first you have to know who that manager is going to be. Tata Martino is all but gone to Mexico and the latest rumors have us seeking managers (specifically Guillermo Barros Schelotto) who implement a similar formation and attacking style.
What players will our new manager have at his disposal? Well, we will more than likely take this journey without Miguel Almiron, who will be suiting up in Europe by February. To prepare for that loss, Darren Eales has been busy. Recently, we’ve been linked to River Plate’s Pity Martinez, who would be the heir apparent to our number 10. But how much of a drop in production we should expect, if any, is impossible to estimate.
After that, barring any unexpected transfers or retirements, we’ll be moving forward with the usual suspects.
Playing our best 11 in the CCL should open up more opportunities for our younger, albeit talented players. We’ve had to find ways to get Tito, Gressel, Nagbe, Barco, Remedi, and Larentowicz meaningful playing time. We have plenty of young players ready for prime time who haven’t seen the field. The CCL challenge will allow us to field players like Carleton, Bello, and Goslin with more frequency. As some of our veteran players might be considering retirement, the CCL challenge may be enough to entice them to stay. Older players like Larentowicz and Parkhurst could be invaluable in the critical CCL games, so we can rely on their heirs, like Miles Robinson, in MLS clashes. This could actually preserve their legs and give them life when the MLS playoffs rolls around.
If our bench didn’t have this quality, we should be worried. But because of the quality of the starting 11, we have yet to see what our younger players can do with consistent time. The CCL forces our new coach to give these players chances, which only adds to a deeper bench and squad.
The 2019 season should be about winning the CONCACAF Champions League. By dedicating the starting 11 to that goal, the Supporter’s Shield is likely not a realistic and shouldn’t be pursued to the point of spreading the squad too thin. Yet with our depth, I feel that we should still make the playoffs and let our rested, best 11 make a postseason run. Ending the 2019 season like Toronto did this year would be a disappointment for this organization.
Toronto FC’s fate doesn’t have to be Atlanta’s. Toronto’s stars were older than our squad’s will be next year. They didn’t have the depth our 2019 squad will. We have a squad strong enough to be a serious contender in the CCL. Yet, the quality of our youth and rotation of players should be able to handle the extra games and travel to keep the Five Stripes alive in the MLS.
The 2019 season will be unique and more exciting than anything this young fanbase has experienced. But if there was an MLS team built to accept this incredible challenge, it’s Atlanta United.