A long — and I do mean looooooong — MLS regular season has finally come to an end. Atlanta United provided us with a wide range of performances this season as we saw the team transform in front of our eyes and clinch a spot in the playoffs. There were some big ups and some noticeable low points, but I think we can all agree that the team that finished the 2023 season is a lot more fun to watch than the one that started the campaign.
This revamped roster has improved the quality of play on the field but will that be enough for the Five Stripes to make a deep run in the playoffs and challenge for their second MLS Cup in December? Here are a few thoughts:
What should expectations be?
This is a completely subjective question, of course. My expectations will likely differ from yours and that’s perfectly fine. However, when looking at this season and how it’s transpired, this team has never felt like the one that will win MLS Cup. For as good as the new signings have been, there still feels like there are some undeniable holes in the squad that will prevent ultimate success in the playoffs.
For as much of an impact Tristan Muyumba has made on the Atlanta midfield — including helping Matheus Rossetto lift his own level of play — there still feels like there’s a true defensive presence missing. It’s a constant theme when they are defending, the opposing team’s top attackers find space between the midfield and back line and expose it. This isn’t a knock of Tristan or Matheus, but there just isn’t that true defensive-minded midfielder there to break up the play and cause havoc for the opposing skill players.
Then there is the elephant in the room that is the goalkeeping. As much of a club legend Brad Guzan is, the numbers are hard to ignore. He is on the downside of his career production-wise and is not the same shot stopper that helped the club lift the cup in 2018. When you’re going up against the best teams in the league, every little detail matters and having an elite goalkeeper is usually the difference in those tight matches. Guzan has not been at the elite level in MLS for several years now.
That Team in Yellow and the Case of the Missing 10
No, it’s not the title of a horrible mystery novel, it’s that massive roadblock in the middle of Atlanta United’s pathway to MLS Cup. I’m not sure if you guys knew this or not, but the Columbus Crew are really freaking good at soccer. They are basically a mirror image of Atlanta United but on 2001 Barry Bonds steroids. Just like the Five Stripes they play an extremely exciting style of attacking soccer with a vulnerability in the back. But as the two team’s recent match-up at Mercedes-Benz Stadium proved, they are much more cohesive and dynamic as a unit.
If facing the team that just dominated you at home a couple of weeks ago wasn’t bad enough, you now have to do it without your most dynamic playmaker. Thiago Almada’s sending off against FC Cincinnati in the regular season finale mean’s he’ll miss the opening away match in the three-match series in Columbus.
The onus is now squarely on the coaching acumen of Gonzalo Pineda and how he will adjust to this huge absence. Can he make the tactical and stylistic adjusts to find a way to win the first match and avoid getting put in a series hole? While ideally this might set up a scenario for the underdog comeback story that sparks the epic montage sequence in a future documentary, in reality it’s a huge blow to the team’s chances to make it far in the postseason.
*Insert rah rah cliche subtitle here*
The odds are certainly stacked against Atlanta United here, and a lot of it from their own doing. But what makes American sports and the playoff system great is that truly anything can happen. This team has proven they can beat anyone in MLS and have tremendous talent to do just that. That talent gelling together to produce something special has come in spurts without much consistency as of yet. But if that dynamic team we’ve seen glimpses of discovers that consistency now at the perfect time then who the heck knows what could happen?
The 2018 Cup run was sparked by an improbable 1-0 away win at Yankee Stadium. If they can somehow find a way to win the opening match and get the early momentum rolling then anything is possible.