After a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of lowly Toronto FC, Atlanta United walk, albeit limp, into the playoffs after a spectacular season where they tied the (former) all-time MLS points record. Regardless of losing the Supporter’s Shield in such a soul-crushing fashion, everyone involved with the Five Stripes will tell you that there is a lot left to play for and all of our goals are still in front of us...and well...they’d be right.
Just one year ago, Atlanta finished off its inaugural season in 4th place and exceeded all of our expectations. Fans were thrilled with the progress. The club was breaking attendance records, playing an attractive form of soccer, playing in a new state-of-the-art stadium, and had 55 points in the table. Life was good. Firmly planted in the knockout round of the playoffs, fans and pundits resounded in one accord, “We had a good season! Anything else is icing on the cake!”
Well, that icing turned out to be the cheap tasting whipped stuff and not the sugary Publix buttercream that has you calling dibs on the corner piece. Fifth place Columbus rose to the challenge, Zack Steffen stood on his head for 120+ minutes, and United lost on penalty kicks.
Walking out of the stadium that evening, I was disappointed. I wasn’t mad at the result, but they were just so close to winning and moving on. It hurt, but there was optimism and it wasn’t difficult to recover from the loss. The future was so bright that it was easy to excuse the playoff loss and the end to such a special season. For everyone, 2017 had exceeded our expectations. “Who cares about the playoffs this year? We were a team on the rise! Next season is going be amazing!” First came Nagbe. Then #BarcoWatch. Bring on new challenges. Bring on all comers. Bring on the championship.
Sunday, Atlanta United will go to either New York City FC, Columbus Crew SC or D.C. United to start its 2018 MLS Cup campaign, and the expectations are much different than in its inaugural season. Unlike last year, the 2018 version of Atlanta United is fully capable of winning the championship. In fact, anything less than an MLS Cup would be a disappointment. The New York Red Bulls are the best team in MLS this season. Disagree? Then 3-1 and 2-0 results against the Five Stripes should prove it. However, over the course of the season, no one else in the league has shown the consistent quality of Atlanta, and RBNY and D.C. (who are coming into the playoff on a hot streak) are the main obstacles in the way.
Arguably, this is the best chance to win MLS Cup for the next couple of seasons. An early exit or lackluster playoffs would fall short of expectations and would be a huge disappointment. As we look at a team with the ambition of a team that signs coaches like Tata Martino and seeks players like Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, and Darlington Nagbe, you manage your time in-season patiently waiting for the postseason. In the second year for this organization, making the playoffs was just about a given. The question we’ve been asking since March is: What are they going to do with the opportunity?
If I walk out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium after the return leg, staring up at the Atlanta skyline and wondering what next season has in store, then something went drastically wrong. Unlike 2017, Atlanta has a team poised to win the Cup. This offseason, Tata and Almiron are leaving. 2019 brings more questions than answers. For teams in United’s position, like the 2017 Atlanta Falcons, everything has come together and the championship is there for the taking. An MLS Cup will erase the bad taste of losing the Supporter’s Shield. A championship will show the nation that Atlanta United have arrived.
For Atlanta United and MLS Cup, the time is now.