As the Braves begin their slow fade from the playoff race and the front office formulates potential rosy narratives for the trade deadline, there’s another Atlanta franchise performing well above expectations.
It’s a soccer team. That’s winning. And selling tickets. And leading the league in scoring.
“I was expecting a lot when I came here because everybody I talked to – agents, coaches – said, ‘Oh, they’re doing good things.’ Or, ‘It’s going to be good there,'” Atlanta United midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said Thursday. “That's been the case. I’ve played for some teams where from Day 1 they’ve been trying to figure things out.”
Atlanta United has figured it out quickly.
Before the relative boom of the MLS, professional soccer had a long run of misery in the U.S. Teams folded. Leagues folded. Atlanta was no exception, even with the briefly successful run of the NASL's Chiefs. Among the failed ventures: One team had three name changes (Steamers/Quicksilver/Lightning) and played in three low-level leagues (indoor/outdoor/indoor) in a span of two and a half years.
And you wonder why the sport had an identity crisis.
As impressive as Atlanta United has been at the box office – season ticket sales exceed 35,000, and the team averages a league-high 46,482 fans per game – the product is what’s most remarkable about this season.
I covered the NHL expansion Atlanta Thrashers, who won only 14 of 82 games in their inaugural season. Players celebrated victories like farmers celebrated rain drops after a seven-month drought.
But Atlanta United is 9-7-3 after the midway point of a 34-game season. It is in fourth place in the Eastern Conference as it resumes play Friday night at Orlando City. Six of the top 11 in each conference make the playoffs. Seattle (2009) is the only MLS expansion team to make the playoffs in the past 10 years.
“We don’t think of the playoffs as a possibility, we think of it as an expectation,” defender Michael Parkhurst said. “All of the excuses are there for an expansion team to (fail). But we’re in a good spot right now.”
Atlanta United, following the attacking style preached by coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, leads the MLS in scoring with 39 goals in 19 games, despite losing top scorer Josef Martinez for several games with a quad injury. (The team is 5-1 in the six games Martinez has started.)
"We're the top scoring team as an expansion team -- that’s what I’m most proud of," team president Darren Eales said. "We’ve played some of the most attractive football from Day 1."
Atlanta United seemingly has done everything right, from front-office and coaching hires to personnel decisions to setting up a player-development system and building one of the league's finer practice facilities. But it's unusual to see an entirely new group of players come together so quickly.
“There’s so much parity in this league that you’re bound to go through a stretch of two or three games where you lose or maybe pick up one point,” Parkhurst said. “It’s the teams that recover from that quickly that do well. Teams internally fold. Guys start complaining and riding each other. The confidence goes down and there’s turmoil. I saw that in Columbus. Guys started bickering.”
The team also has endured a vagabond existence, playing home games at Georgia Tech because of construction delays at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, then seeing its schedule changed and the move into the new stadium postponed again until Sept. 10 (Game 25).
Parkhurst again: “You have to adapt in order to survive, and we’ve become very good at that. We also have a bunch of guys who are new to this league, and they’re young and they just don’t care about that stuff. They don’t care if we’re delayed or it’s turf or grass or 30 degrees or 100 degrees.”
Eales called it, “Project Lemonade,” when it was learned Bobby Dodd Stadium would be the team’s temporary home. The idea was to turn Tech into a strong home-field advantage. It worked so well, now some wonder if the atmosphere can be replicated in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“It’s almost like we made the lemonade too good,” Eales said. “But the reality is our fans come with us.”
Eales had some fun the other day. The team took notice of back-to-back games being scheduled against Orlando City (Friday in Orlando, next Saturday at Bobby Dodd). It's the closest thing Atlanta United has to a regional rival. So the team rented a billboard in downtown Orlando and plastered pictures of two players and the club logo on it with the words, "Orlando: We're coming to conquer."
Atlanta United fans loved it. Orlando City fans not so much. But Eales said he informed Orlando officials it was coming. The billboard was up only two days.
"It wasn't too expensive," Eales said. "We're just an MLS club, so we couldn't afford too much."
Start-ups have limited budgets. But this start-up will be around for the long-term.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.