Just days from now MLS will commence its 23rd season. Coincidentally, it will do so with 23 teams. However, 3 of those are in Canada, and another 19 are just as unimportant. That leaves Atlanta United standing alone as a beacon lighting the way the beautiful game should be played. So, for those of you reading this as neutral fans, prepare to be convinced to drop that neutrality. You’re not Switzerland. If you’re a rival fan, you must be confused. Atlanta doesn’t have any rivals. Especially not Orlando City. We are absolutely not in any way imaginable consumed with enmity towards that team. Really. We couldn’t care less. Not interested at all. No way. Trust us on this.
What happened last season
Anyhoo, Atlanta United arrived on the scene last season to predictions of typical expansion mediocrity and proceeded to exceed everybody’s expectations (apparently there was another new team last season, but their year was about dull and gray as their uniforms). In summary, here’s what happened:
- Finished the regular season as the fourth best team in the league
- Set season and single-game attendance records
- Became the first expansion team to make the playoffs since the Seattle Sounders in 2009, and only the fourth ever.
- Had a goal difference of 30, second only to Toronto FC
- Were involved in probably the most entertaining 0-0 playoff draw ever, despite ultimately losing
- Earned Newcomer of the Year (Miguel Almiron), Rookie of the Year (Julian Gressel), Goal of the year (Tito Villalba) and Save of the Year (Brad Guzan) honors
- Star striker Josef Martinez finished 4th in the Golden Boot race, despite being out with injury nearly half the season, and scored at the fastest rate ever recorded in MLS
However, the team didn’t sit on its laurels and went straight to work on a very busy off-season.
What’s happened since
Two of Atlanta United’s biggest strengths are its ownership and front office. Owner Arthur Blank has not, to say the least, been cheap (and yes, we’re looking at you, Robert Kraft. And you, Bill McGuire). Having shelled out huge sums to build the inaugural roster and house it in a space-age training facility last year, his checkbook remained wide open this off-season. That allowed the team’s extremely ambitious and capable front office team to do numerous things once the season came to an end, namely:
- Acquired midfielder Darlington Nagbe from the Portland Timbers in what will be a record intra-MLS transfer deal totalling $1.65 million if all incentives are met.
- Acquired defender Franco Escobar from Argentina’s Newell’s Old Boys (coach Tata Martino’s old team)
- Acquired midfielder Ezequiel Barco from Argentina’s Independiente in an MLS record-smashing $15 million deal that was easily the off-season’s biggest drama.
- Established a USL team creatively named ATL UTD 2. Yes, that’s the official name. Get it right. They are kinda picky about it.
- The team also spent $1.7 million for priority buying rights over the next two transfer windows on winger Lucas Rodriguez of Estudiantes. And yes, you guessed right, that’s in Argentina.
You say goodbye, I say hello
With three major signings over the break (as well as three good pickups in the MLS Superdraft), obviously several players are not going to be around for 2018.
Left winger Yamil Asad was on a single season loan and went back to his home club Velez Sarsfield (no more guesses). Briefly, that is. Although Atlanta negotiated for his return, the two teams were unable to come to terms, and Asad ended up back in the US on another loan, this time at DC United.
Right back Anton Walkes was also on loan and returned to Tottenham Hotspur, amazingly not in Argentina despite the weird English name, but in fact the former employer of Atlanta club president Darren Eales. Walkes started the year on a low note, scoring an own goal in the season opener, but quickly developed into a serviceable player in Martino’s system. He too is out on loan again, with League One team Portsmouth FC.
The biggest loss was Chilean defensive midfielder Carlos Carmona who requested, and was granted, a transfer back home, going to Colo Colo. Carmona’s wife is expecting their first child and the couple wanted the child to be born in their native country.
Several other players will not be back, including Tyrone Mears, Jacob Peterson and retirees Kenwyne Jones and Bobby Boswell, as well as a few others who saw limited if any playing time.
How this changes Atlanta’s game
Although Asad was a strong performer for the Five Stripes last year despite a shaky start, Barco is a direct replacement at the position and represents a clear upgrade. He has a much bigger upside, both as a player and financially for the club. He is fast, strong on the dribble, accurate on the pass and unafraid to go at defenders. All of this makes him an excellent attacking midfield partner to Miguel Almiron and Tito Villalba. With Barco on the field, Atlanta’s already high-octane offense is now running on jet fuel.
Barco, however, is going to be out 4-6 weeks with a quad injury to start the season. It is unclear how the team will line up without him. A likely option is Julian Gressel, who filled in in numerous positions last season. But he has not looked too strong in the team’s preseason outings.
Escobar is similarly a straight swap for Walkes and is even more of an upgrade than Barco. His preseason action was limited on a precautionary basis (whatever that means) but what we did see of him indicates that he is a perfect fit for Martino’s high-pressing style. That style relies heavily on the fullbacks to push forwards and overload the defense. Last season, much of that pressing attack came on the left side working forwards from left back Greg Garza. Walkes on the right (and Mears too when he was playing the position) was far less aggressive. Now the two sides are much more balanced and present much more of a double threat than before. Expect Atlanta to mercilessly stretch defenses.
Nagbe, on the other hand, is not quite a direct replacement for Carmona, and in fact the lack of such a replacement has some Atlanta fans worried about the strength and depth of the team’s defense. That may turn out to be an unwarranted concern, as the team’s offense is so strong that defense is almost an afterthought. Nagbe is clearly a key addition to that. More than anything else, he is a midfield maestro, with nearly unparalleled passing ability. With the distribution options he provides, and the speed in front of him, opposing teams are going to spending a lot of time chasing the ball.
So what else is new?
More than anything else, the schedule. Last year, the team’s permanent home was under construction at the beginning of the season and the club found itself a tenant at Georgia Tech’s venerable Bobby Dodd Stadium (which despite its age and faults managed to endear itself to the fans) for a few games, as well as spending a lot of time on the road early in year. Then construction delays at Mercedes-Benz forced the team to compress its late season schedule, with the result that they played a punishing 8 games in 24 days during September, to the extent that Wednesday night games became almost the norm. Although most of those were at home, it resulted in several key injuries and general tiredness, and probably contributed to the team’s early exit from the playoffs.
This season, no such problems. The team will enjoy a much more balanced schedule (it has only 3 midweek league games all year) and exhaustion will be much less a factor than previously. However, there will doubtless be a few confused fans showing up at the stadium next Wednesday wondering where everybody else is.
The $64,000 question…
How much will Andrew Carleton play? Carleton is Atlanta’s local hero. Still only 17, he made his debut last year, playing 4 minutes against the Houston Dynamo in substitution for Miguel Almiron, coming on to roars of approval as loud as if not louder than those for the exiting Almiron who had scored a hat trick. But he didn’t play again in league games (he did feature in an Open Cup game, and was absent for an extended period with the U17 national team), and fans are chomping at the bit to see more of him this year. Tata Martino has been a bit coy about his plans for the teenager, but has said that he looks more like a first team player than a reserve team player. We shall see.
How will the team fare?
In its sophomore season, Atlanta is not going to creep up on anyone unawares. The team’s preseason rankings are strong; most observers rate them as the second or third best team heading into 2018 (you can read the DSS writers’ predictions here). Expectations for the squad are through the roof (possibly literally if the engineers don’t figure out the problems with Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s retractable roof), both locally and around the league. It would seem that after making the playoffs as an expansion team and with the roster moves over the off-season, anything less than the Eastern Conference Championship would be a disappointment. However, that is not an easy ask. Teams across the league have made significant improvements to their rosters and what was already a very strong Eastern Conference is likely to be more so this year. But what we can confidently predict is this: Atlanta United is going to be fun.