Atlanta United is halfway through its inaugural season and, so far, things are pretty, pretty good.
The Five Stripes are 7-7-3 and in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, which would be the final playoff spot. Its elimination by Miami 3-2 in the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday means the MLS expansion team can focus on clinching a spot in the postseason.
It leads the league in goals scored and has navigated the toughest part of its schedule, which included 10 games on the road, and now will get to enjoy playing 10 of its final 17 league games at home.
Here is a review of the team’s first 17 games:
3 BEST MOMENTS
The first goal. A moment years in the making happened in the 25th minute of opening game against the New York Red Bulls when Yamil Asad touched in a left-footed shot off a brilliant cross from Tyrone Mears. The goal sent the more than 55,000 at Bobby Dodd Stadium into a frenzy and Asad into history.
Josef Martinez’s comeback goal. Though Bobby Dodd Stadium frequently gets loud, it has seldom been as loud as when Martinez, making his first appearance at home after a long injury layoff, blasted a left-footed shot for an insurance goal in Atlanta United’s 3-1 win over Columbus on June 17. The crowd had just minutes before been chanting “We want Josef.” After he scored, he walked to the northern end where the supporters groups sit and became emotional.
The ATL Viking Clap. The Viking clap — arms raised above the head with one clap — isn’t unique to Atlanta, but the supporters turned it into something special in the second home game against Chicago. Instead of just a clap, the chant “A-T-L” was added, with each letter coming after each clap. “A” clap, “T” clap, “L” clap. Soon, the more than 45,000 in attendance picked up the clap/chant and it is now a staple of home games.
3 WORST MOMENTS
Josef Martinez’s injury. Martinez didn’t sustain his thigh injury while playing for Atlanta United, but it impacted the season. Martinez sustained the injury in March while playing with the Venezuelan national team. It forced him to miss 10 games during which Atlanta United went 3-4-3.
Losing to D.C. United … twice. This wasn’t a moment, but it wasn’t good. Twice Atlanta United seemed to be playing well when D.C. United was next on the schedule. Twice Atlanta United was beaten by an aggregate score of 5-1. D.C. United had scored almost half of its season’s total of 12 goals against the Five Stripes. If Atlanta United doesn’t make the playoffs, those two losses will loom large.
The red card. This was out of Atlanta United’s hands, but it was still one of the defining moments in the first 17 games: the red card given to Leandro Gonzalez Pirez near the end of the first half at Montreal. Atlanta United was leading 1-0 when the red card was given. Montreal scored on the ensuing penalty kick and then nicked a 2-1 win in the final seconds of the second half. The red card was rightfully rescinded, but the points were gone.
3 THINGS TRENDING UP
The Designated Players. Atlanta United’s front office has done what few other teams have: gotten all three of its DP signings correct. Striker Josef Martinez, Attacking midfielder Miguel Almiron and right midfielder/striker Hector Villalba have combined for 21 goals and 10 assists this season. Almiron leads with eight in 17 games, Martinez has seven in seven and Villalba six in 17.
The loanees. Atlanta United has featured two loanees in its starting lineup through most of the season’s first 17 games: left fullback Greg Garza and left midfielder Yamil Asad. Josef Martinez started as a loanee before his contract was purchased by the team after the season’s third game. Garza has been a weapon on offense and dutiful defender, while Asad, after a rough start with a red card and then another suspension, is tied for the league lead in assists (9). Anton Walkes, another loanee, made his first start MLS in a 1-0 win over Colorado.
The home schedule. Atlanta United played 10 of its first 17 games on the road, most in MLS. They took trips to Seattle, Portland and Vancouver. Now, not only will they not travel farther than to Kansas City, but they will have 10 home games in the second half of the schedule, including six consecutive when they make their Mercedes-Benz Stadium debut on Sept. 10 against FC Dallas.
3 THINGS TRENDING DOWN
Set piece defense. Atlanta United has conceded four goals from set pieces, which statistically is right in the middle of the league. Set pieces are dead-ball re-starts that don’t include penalty kicks.
Set piece offense. Atlanta United is one of three teams (Chicago and D.C. United) that has yet to score from a set piece in league play this season.
Goalkeeper controversy. It started as soon as it was announced that Brad Guzan signed with the team in January, and it has hovered over the goalie box since: When will he start? Never mind that he can’t until the secondary transfer window opens July 10, the question has been asked after every game, particularly after every loss, on social media. Meanwhile, Decatur’s Alec Kann has started every game. Though the team has allowed 25 goals, it can be argued that no more than three were directly Kann’s fault.
3 MLS PREDICTIONS
Rookie of the year. Atlanta United’s Julian Gressel has three goals and five assists in 17 appearances, including 15 starts. He has played all over the midfielder, and even played for a few minutes at striker.
Golden Boot. Nemanja Nikolic of Chicago leads MLS in goals (14) and shots on goal (33). Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Juninho have been masterful at getting the ball to Nikolic in dangerous spots. Plus, teams can’t focus exclusively on him because speedy David Accam is on the flank.
Champion. Winning any league, or any playoff, is typically involved playing good defense and knowing how to grind out a result. There’s few better at that than Dallas, which has 25 points, including seven ties. Dallas will pip Chicago for the title.