So much went right for Atlanta United in its inaugural season.
It became the first MLS expansion team to reach the playoffs since Seattle in 2009.
Led by Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron and Hector Villalba, the team scored the second-most goals (70).
Led by Brad Guzan, Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, the team had the second-largest goal difference (30).
“It was a great season, but we are already looking ahead to 2018 and how do we get better, improve on the season and get better and better?” Atlanta United President Darren Eales said.
Here are three of the many things that went right:
Gerardo Martino. When the team announced Martino would be its first manager, the hiring was announced with shock (former managers of Barcelona and Argentina don’t come to MLS, much less expansion teams in MLS) and then some skepticism (foreign managers haven’t had the best track record in the league).
But Martino came prepared for all of the challenges of the league’s unique rules for player acquisition, the teams, the travel, the different surfaces and, most importantly, which players he wanted to work with Carlos Bocanegra to sign.
Despite having just a few weeks to work with the players, and a few days with the full team, Martino was able to implement his high-pressing, aggressive style out of his preferred 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation. The roster had few holes and the team never experienced a losing streak longer than two games and had winning streaks of four, three and two (three times) games. The team went 11-3-3 and navigated the tough stretch of eight games in 24 days with a 5-1-2 record.
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Though he rarely spoke English, he got into a few verbal scraps with opposing managers, didn’t hesitate to criticize MLS’s referees (who are targets of everyone, it seems) and charmed the media and the team’s supporters throughout the season, including in one of his final answers to the English-speaking media following the loss to Columbus in the playoffs:
“I want to say a profound thank you to all of the fans,” Martino said. “Starting from when we didn’t even have any players, the support has been there all year. From when we didn’t have players, to starting to play at Bobby Dodd Stadium, and then this new stage of the season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. So more than a message it’s just a thank you. Our commitment is that we’re going to continue to improve and get better.”
The Designated Players. How well did Atlanta United do with its Designated Players? They scored more goals (41) than did the entire teams of Sporting KC (40), San Jose (39), which made the playoffs in the Western Conference, Orlando City (39), D.C. United (31) and Colorado (31).
Martinez, because of his time in Italy, was a known player when he signed with Atlanta United as the final Designated Players. Other than youtube videos, the same couldn’t be said of Villalba and Almiron, who joined from clubs in Argentina.
With speed, vision and technical ability, the trio also combined to notch 26 assists.
Martinez, 24, scored 19 goals in just 20 games. Had he not missed 10 games because of an injury sustained while playing for Venezuela, he likely would have finished as the runaway winner of the Golden Boot, which is the award given to the league’s top scorer.
Almiron, 23, scored nine goals and had 14 assists in 30 appearances, including 27 starts. He proved a very capable box-to-box midfielder, capable of flipping the field from defense to offense in just a few seconds with a run or pass. Almiron and club president Darren Eales have denied reports of interest in him from Arsenal and Inter Milan.
Villalba, 23 and the team’s first Designated Player, scored 13 goals and had 11 assists. Though his first touch could be inconsistent, his speed wasn’t. He succeeded as a right midfielder or as striker when Martinez couldn’t play.
The center of the defense. Throughout the first 19 games, the oft-used analysis of Atlanta United was, “the offense is great, but that defense can be had.”
That belief started to change around the 20th game when Atlanta United shut out Orlando City 1-0. The team would go on to post seven more shutouts in its next 14 regular-season games. It finished with 12, and then held Columbus 120 minutes during regular time and extra time in the first round of the playoffs.
The quartet of centerbacks Parkhurst and Gonzalez Pirez, playing in front of Guzan, who allowed less than a goal per game after making his debut at Orlando City, and behind holding midfielders Jeff Larentowicz and Carlos Carmona, developed a chemistry that gave the team even more confidence.