On Sunday, Atlanta United begins the journey toward its first piece of hardware. Winning the MLS Cup will erase any sore feelings about its second place finish for the Supporter’s Shield. Because there is not an unbeatable team in the bracket, the trophy is prime for the taking. Let’s take a look at the strengths that will lead Atlanta to glory, as well as the major reasons why they will fall short.
Why Atlanta United will win MLS Cup
They’re really, really good
Atlanta United just earned 69 points in an MLS season. Were it not for the New York City Red Bulls and their 71 points, United would have tied the best MLS season ever. Losing against Toronto 4-1 and missing out on the Supporter’s Shield has created the social media hot take that the Five Stripes are a disappointing team. That’s simply not true; it’s a historically great team. Everyone is upset that Atlanta just laid an egg in the most pivotal game in the organization’s short history, but the narrative of disappointment with the regular season is bordering on hyperbolic. One game does not define a team. One loss in Toronto doesn’t mean this team can’t win a championship.
Atlanta United is the best team on paper
Atlanta’s striker is the record-breaking Josef Martinez. The team has arguably the best player in MLS in Miguel Almiron. Tito Villalba is a clutch attacker that starts for just about everyone in MLS, but has had a hard time getting into Atlanta’s starting 11. Ezequiel Barco, while he hasn’t lived up to his $15 million transfer fee, has been serviceable. Julian Gressel, the reigning Rookie of the Year, may be the most versatile player in the league and has 14 assists on the season. Darlington Nagbe is one of the best possession midfielders in the league. Jeff Larentowicz, although in the twilight of his career, is a savvy veteran and a reliable piece of the midfield. Eric Remedi, the mid-season signing, has shown flashes of great play while still learning the league. Leandro González Pírez has proven to be one of the best centerbacks this season, while Michael Parkhurst’s play has him considered for postseason awards. Franco Escobar has shown growth and solid play as the year has progressed. George Bello and Greg Garza are above-average left backs. When you further consider the bench, it’s no surprise that Atlanta United may be the most talented team in the league.
Miguel Almiron’s left leg
Miguel Almiron will not win the MVP award, but the left-legged phenom has ran, passed, and defended his way into the hearts of every Atlanta fan and placed him firmly in the MVP discussion. Although he has missed some chances this year, his 12 goals have been pivotal to the team’s successful season and a reason they are in the conference semifinal. As teams continue to go all-in to shut down Josef Martinez, Almiron’s chances become more critical and that left leg even more valuable. If Atlanta wins the Cup, count on Miggy having a game winner at some point in the journey.
Tata Martino’s leadership
Martino’s reputation precedes him. The manager has won club championships with Libertad, Cerro Porteño, and Newell’s Old Boys. More recently, he has won big games with Barcelona and the Argentinian national team. He has a coaching pedigree that demonstrates his leadership and ability to motivate players. With Atlanta United, he has built an incredibly successful team from scratch in only two years. While the Toronto game has left a bad taste in the mouths of fans, it doesn’t mean that this team is bad or Martino has forgotten how to coach. In reality, the opposite is true. If Atlanta United wins the MLS Cup, Martino’s tactics, motivation, and leadership will be a huge factor.
With ten road victories this season, a new MLS record by the way, Atlanta should move forward with confidence as it travels to New York on Sunday. Because the other playoff teams may see the road games as a bigger obstacle than our Five Stripes, Atlanta’s ability to consistently get results away from home gives us a huge advantage in the home-and-away game format. If United can draw or win in New York this weekend, it makes the return leg in Mercedes-Benz Stadium a more attainable feat and further solidifies that confidence that we can get results on the road against quality opponents.
Atlanta didn’t win the Supporter’s Shield
Did you know that Supporter’s Shield winners are only 7 of 22 in the blah, blah, blah….
Why Atlanta United Won’t Win MLS Cup
An underwhelming stretch to end the regular season
After disposing of Real Salt Lake in late Spetember, Atlanta lost 2-0 to Red Bulls, won 2-1 against a decent New England side, had an underwhelming 2-1 win against a bad Chicago team (which probably should have ended in a draw), and lost 4-1 to a bad Toronto side with nothing to play for. They aren’t exactly going into the playoffs on a hot streak. United hasn’t looked good in over a month and Martinez hasn’t scored a goal in live play in five games. Something needs to get figured out or NYCFC will make quick work of us.
Struggles in “must-win” games
Atlanta have really only had three “must win” games this season (if you care anything about the US Open Cup, which we apparently didn’t). Last year, we drew against Columbus for 120 minutes and bowed out of the playoffs on penalties. This season, we lost to Chicago in an elimination game for the US Open Cup and lost 4-1 in a game that could have won us the Supporter’s Shield. In critical, must-win games, Atlanta United is 0-3.
Miguel Almiron’s left leg
Is it healthy? As we saw in Toronto, no Almiron means that there is little creativity and that Atlanta will struggle in attack and possession. Someone please do some Mr. Miyagi stuff to that hamstring before Sunday, because if he doesn’t play, Atlanta United doesn’t win the MLS Cup.
Tata Martino’s stubbornness
In MLS, the team that wins is often the team that slows the game down and gets CONCACAF-y. Ugly wins are still wins, and in the playoffs, that’s all that matters. et, Tata Martino is a purist. He often forces an attacking, possession-based 4-3-3 when playing a counter-styled 3-5-2 is a better strategy. In the Toronto loss, the argument could be made that on a cold night, playing on a terrible pitch, Tata’s stubbornness cost the club its best opportunity for a trophy this season.
The high press
In the games that have frustrated the Five Stripes, teams have been able to press high on the pitch and limit United’s ability to build up or maintain possession. The Red Bulls have perfected this style against Atlanta and made our attack look inept. Toronto FC were able to do the same in the first half last week. If Atlanta resorts to bombing long passes from Guzan or the CBs and is consistently unable to get out of our own half, we will not win. Only a few teams have the personnel to be successful at the high press, but those that do have implemented this against Atlanta with success.
Unable to beat the best
The only playoff teams Atlanta has beaten this season are D.C. United, Columbus, Philadelphia, LAFC, and Real Salt Lake. Columbus are a different team with a different grit in the playoffs. Plus, they have Zack Steffen, who you don’t want to face in a must-win game. D.C. and Philadelphia are already eliminated and Real Salt Lake ended up hanging on to beat LAFC. Of those that are left, United have shown an inability to beat them, either at home or the on the road - we drew Portland at home, NYCFC twice, and been fathered by Red Bulls. To win the cup, Atlanta United is probably going to have to win against someone it hasn’t beaten this season.