It doesn’t feel that long ago that Atlanta United were the nascent club in MLS, one that immediately made its mark on the soccer scene thanks in part to its uptempo play, passionate fanbase and one of the most lethal striker-midfielder duos in the league.
That was three years ago. While it doesn’t seem like so long ago that an announced crowd of 55,297 descended on historic Bobby Dodd Stadium to see Atlanta’s newest professional franchise, it’s been through quite a bit since then. One MLS Cup in 2019. A Campeones Cup in 2019, followed by a U.S. Open Cup. And as a new-look Five Stripes open their 4th MLS season in Nashville on Saturday against Nashville SC, they’ll be facing a club looking to match, if not completely clear, the bar set by clubs like Atlanta. If nothing else, it will make for a fun Southern derby for years to come along with the league’s future club in Charlotte set to open play in 2021 at Bank of America Stadium.
The new boys
We know the story about Nashville SC: 2 years spent in the USL Championship before making the jump to MLS this season. And like Atlanta United, they’re spending time in a temporary home while their permanent stadium is being built: Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans, will host NSC for its first 2 seasons before it moves into a brand-new, 30,000-seat soccer-specific facility in 2022. At least that’s the hope: there’s word as early as last week that the project could face further delays. Sound familiar?
And Nashville fans are expected to show up as over 50,000 tickets have been sold in what is on pace to be the largest attended soccer match in the state of Tennessee’s history. A good chunk of those fans are making the 3.5 hour trip (or short flight) from Atlanta to Nashville to take in a historic (and cold) evening in the city’s sports history. I had a chance to catch up with Ben Wright over at Speedway Soccer (which has been covering Nashville SC since its USL days), so head over there to get a deeper look at the club itself.
For about the first 35 or 40 minutes of Atlanta United’s second-leg win against Motagua in the Concacaf Champions League Round of 16, it appeared that the same Pity Martinez we saw last year had shown up once more. Sure, he was getting the ball at his feet and making good runs, but his overall shot selection and creativity weren’t there. Two goals and an assist later, though, we caught a sight of a player that had received plenty of criticism when first arriving at River Plate before endearing himself to fans. And it appears—after one game, at least—that he’s out to do the same here in the U.S.
Pity will be the first to tell you that last year was a disappointment: Atlanta United didn’t pay $15 million for him to lock horns with his coach or be deemed a “danger to the team”. And I’ll raise my hand and say that I’ve been as critical of him as most others have been. But the Pity Martinez we saw on Tuesday, while not perfect, was the iteration that fans, players and technical staff hope to see throughout not just the MLS season, but however far Atlanta ends up going in CCL. He understands that this is a “show-me” year that could determine whether he’s set to make a move to Europe and break through in the Argentinian national team discussion or if his returns end up not matching the price Atlanta paid for him.
How will Atlanta respond?
The good news for Atlanta United: it’s already match-fit having already played a pair of contests in the Concacaf Champions League. The bad news? It won’t come in as nearly as rested as Nashville, although the effects probably won’t be as noticable as it is still very young in the campaign. That said, Atlanta hasn’t enjoyed a week-long break that it had between matches against Motagua, and if it makes a deep run into CCL, fixture congestion is going to be an issue, a point Frank de Boer brought up in his post-match press conference on Tuesday after Atlanta’s 3-0 win in Kennesaw.
That factor brings up last year: Atlanta’s matches after its Round of 16 win against Heridano saw it get off to a woefully slow start. There was the 2-0 shutout loss to D.C. United, followed by a 3-0 loss at Monterrey in the CCL’s quarterfinal opener. Of course, it corrected course and ultimately went into a strong run of form to see it add an aforementioned 2 trophies to its case, coming close to hosting MLS Cup at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for a 2nd straight year.
The hope is that the club’s learned from that and steps onto Nissan Stadium focused and ready to take on the task at hand. Even though a few of the names are familiar (Dax McCarty, David Accam, Walker Zimmerman), we don’t fully know what Nashville as a collective has in store as we’ve not seen them play a top-flight match that counts. If Atlanta come in over-confident and feeling that it can simply coast through this contest, a shot at 3 points goes out the window. That’s not to say that losing to an expansion club that you’re probably expected to beat automatically means that the season is bound to be a waste, but dropping points (especially on the road) could come back to haunt you in the end. Nashville SC 0-2 Atlanta United