This is what they play for: Atlanta United's Julian Gressel and Brad Guzan partake of a victory parade as MLS champions. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)
Photo: Jason Getz
Photo: Jason Getz

Atlanta United has MLS title to defend - all else is secondary

Atlanta United’s first game of any substance this year was an unmitigated belly-flop. The fellows were out of synch, out of tune, a bad knock-off imitation of the team that just a couple of months ago won the MLS championship and transformed Atlanta into a place where I can’t mock soccer anymore.

Of Thursday night’s 3-1 loss to Herediano of Costa Rica, Atlanta United President Darren Eales said: “I think actually we were a little bit nervous and anxious, so we didn’t show that defensive solidity. We were almost trying too hard.”

“I think after (giving up) the first goal, we were so eager to get back into the game then we lost our foundation we built on,” said Atlanta United’s new coach, Frank de Boer. “We were running out of our roles that we have on the field.”

“From these kind of games you can also learn a lot and we did,” the coach said.

The old learning-experience reaction. Learning experiences are almost always the most painful kinds – ugly losses in Central America, sticking a fork in an electrical socket, trying to stay friends with your ex.  

Learning experiences are fine, so long as you don’t experience too many of them. Sooner of later, you have to be the one doing the teaching.

There is another view of this detour into the CONCACAF tournament that you won’t hear much as Atlanta United prepares for a rematch with the Costa Ricans on Thursday at Kennesaw State:

“I don’t really care what happens next. As soon as they transfer Herediano all the way over to the MLS East, I’ll care. In fact, would it really be the worst thing in the world if Atlanta United were eliminated from this competition, so it could concentrate fully on the season at hand?” 

Or there’s this view: “How much energy do you want to expend on something that has nothing to do with defending your MLS title, here just three days before a very tough league opener in Washington? How much injury do you want to risk in pursuit of an extraneous victory? Getting to the CONCACAF finals would mean eight extra games added to an already long and physically trying season. At what price?” 

Or this one: “If this is so big, why are they playing at Kennesaw State? Yeah, fine, Mercedes-Benz is booked. So, where can I get Supercross tickets?”

OK, those views are all mine, just some of the many voices inside my head that are engaged in constant conversation.

When I asked Atlanta United midfielder Julian Gressel on Tuesday about the relative importance of a game against Costa Rica when MLS play looms, he gave a very proper answer.

“For me it’s very important because it’s the next game,” he said. “We want to advance, and we want to continue playing on an international level. My 100 percent focus is on that, I haven’t even thought about D.C. to be honest with you. We’ll worry about that when Friday comes.”

I hear what he’s saying, and admire the desire to push Atlanta United onto a more international platform. It’s nice that you want to prove the fettle of a league that has never won at the CONCACAF level.

But I don’t see the Braves looking to play the Cuban National Team in between a series with Washington and Philadelphia, trying to further prove themselves.

Atlanta United has enough challenges. It is trying to repeat as MLS champion and hold onto the reputation as the class of pro soccer in America, all while breaking in a new coach. D.C. United is a thorny opener, one that demands undivided attention. 

If you could say that winning anything within the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football is parade-worthy, then go all-out for it. If you could say that winning this prize would mean every bit as much as repeating as MLS champion, then by all means treat it as competitive life and death.

Otherwise, perspective please. Confining the learning experiences to CONCACAF before getting back to schooling the rest of MLS isn’t such a horrible option.

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About the Author

Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer writes sports features for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He covers a wide range of sports and topics.