It was just the day before yesterday, or thereabouts, that Atlanta United was winning the MLS Cup and sending the hipster segment of the community into paroxysms of vaguely Old World chants and craft-beer consumption.
Another season gets real starting Thursday night with battle for partial control of the hemisphere in something known as CONCACAF, an acronym that only could be invented by soccer or the military. Then comes the beginning of the long league season, March 3.
Or is it just the continuation of the last season?
For just as it was a year ago, Atlanta United is every bit the class of the MLS. There is no reason to suspect this team won’t just continue on the path of dominance it has been clearing since its inception. No reason to suspect a hiccup or a halt. There is not a MLS preview out there – at least that I could find – that doesn’t make Atlanta United a favorite to repeat as champion. And there seems little reason to fear them wrong.
Sure, there have been changes since December. A popular and wildly successful coach has moved on. A popular and brilliant performer, a hummingbird in cleats, has taken his talents to England. Yet where the loss of the likes of Tata Martino and Miguel Almiron might spell the decline of other teams, for Atlanta United, it was but an invitation to renovate and redecorate.
Any concern has been replaced with intrigue. Atlanta United reloaded with another young South American of great promise and an even better name, Pity Martinez. And this preseason there have been reasons to believe last year’s $15 million acquisition, Ezequiel Barco, was ready to emerge from his chrysalis and play with some purpose. He spent much of last season as a rumor.
Oh, and it still has this city’s and the league’s 2018 MVP, Josef Martinez. He’s happy, healthy for now, and committed to soccer in America regardless of the prestige that lives elsewhere.
(When asked by the AJC’s Doug Roberson how Martinez can improve upon his record-setting 35 goals last season, midfielder Jeff Larentowicz only half-jokingly suggested, “score 50.” The bar is high.)
Certain assurances have been given that the manager succeeding Martino, Dutchman Frank de Boer, is not going to bog down the attractive, goal-hunting style that Atlanta United has made its trademark.
“Tactically we’re going to be pretty similar,” defender Michael Parkhurst said. “He doesn’t want to change too much of what’s made us so successful the last couple years. Offensively, he wants us to have the freedom to do what we’ve been doing the last few years, scoring a ton of goals. In a similar fashion to Tata he’s allowing the front guys to have that freedom.”
With one little twist: “We’ve worked on defensive tactics a lot more under Frank in these few weeks than we did over a longer period of time with Tata,” Parkhurst said. “He just thinks that’s something that can improve. Our offense speaks for itself – we’re going to be dangerous. But defensively he wants to make sure that we’re sound, so that’s been the main focus.”
Rather than a big break from the brief Martino era, you’d like to believe that de Boer represents only the continuation of smart and worldly coaching, just emanating from a different continent, that’s all. Whether the old Dutch defenseman really does keep it all upbeat and exciting and a little bit edgy is the largest unknown on a very established team.
The approach to a new Atlanta United season is unlike any other. Here is the lone Atlanta franchise free of the scars of old disappointments, a franchise that has done nothing but uplift its followers.
There can be no expecting the worst because the fans have no experience with what the worst could be. There is not even a benefit of the doubt to give because that would require some measure of doubt.
So, what exactly is this strange feeling accompanying the start of Atlanta United’s third season? What is this sensation so foreign to any Atlanta fan base at the launch of a new campaign?
Why, I believe it might be cockiness.