An hour ago, I didn’t expect to forgo Atlanta United’s last pre-game media availability of the season to write this column.
The truth is, I’ve been sat at my desk for most of the morning dreading it. Dreading using all my creative ability to dream up some questions of substance worth asking. Dreading having to nod my head and listen to platitudes that I’m sure those uttering would rather not be spewing. Dreading an attempt to convince myself that any of this charade matters.
The questions seem pointless at this late stage, because everyone — the front office, Stephen Glass, the players, and most importantly, you — understand the stakes of Decision Day: Atlanta United must win. Atlanta United must go on the road and beat a Columbus Crew team that ran them off the field earlier this season in MLS is Back. Atlanta United must prove that it has the quality and character that is representative of what this city has come to know of its team. And to be fair, Atlanta has changed drastically since the last time these two teams met, so there’s every possibility that this team can step up to the challenge.
Much has been made of Josef Martinez’s absence this year. And yes, it’s obvious that when you lose an MVP-caliber player capable of scoring 20 goals a season, that’s going to be a loss of production that will manifest in a team that doesn’t fare as well in the standings. That’s just math.
What’s more concerning to observe, which has been made apparent over the course of the season, is that the team does not appear to have an engrained sense of belief, a confidence that it can indeed go win a game against playoff-caliber competition. In fact, Atlanta has only beaten four different teams in MLS this season, and only two of those clubs — FC Dallas and expansion side Nashville SC — will be competing in the drastically expanded MLS Cup Playoffs this fall.
This display of impotence is a crushing feeling for fans, because it’s the exact opposite of everything we learned about this club through its first three seasons. And it’s not purely down to results.
In 2017, Atlanta United was far from perfect. They had some boring games, they had some games where they gave up leads and lost games they shouldn’t. Hell, they ended up losing in the first round of the playoffs in a game in which they were held scoreless over 120 minutes. And yet, that team was adored by fans. Why? Because there was an attachment. And that attachment was borne in a belief that the players gave everything they had, were put in positions to be successful by the manager, and collectively they tried to take the game to the opposition every time they played.
Now, these are verbatim texts and personal messages I’ve received from friends during games in recent weeks:
“I had no idea I was going to be this disappointed with our team this year.”
“I hope we don’t get destroyed.”
“We look like 11 dudes who just met at the park and joined up for a pick up game.”
“I’m not sure I can get through this game. This is painful.”
“I feel no connection to any of our players.”
“I don’t know the schedule or anything, I’ll just see tweets from the club account and be like ‘Oh, there’s a game tonight.’ *cringe* Whereas last year I could tell you our next 2-3 opponents at all times.”
This is the reality of where we are in the current moment. And honestly, making the playoffs won’t suddenly change these perceptions overnight. However, the way team plays and the character they show on the field at MAPFRE Stadium Sunday can be the beginning of a new Atlanta United. It has to be.