Possibly leaning slightly to the left after a yet-to-be-told celebratory mishap, the MLS Cup won by Atlanta United is placed on the left side of the foyer to the lobby in the team’s training facility in Marietta.
It not only is a 43-pound, sterling silver reminder of what the team accomplished last season in defeating Portland 2-0, it also is a prize that the league’s remaining 23 teams will try to wrest away this season.
Heavy will hang the head of the proclaimed Kings of the South.
“It’s something new to us, but it’s something that we have to deal with,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said. “We will have to be at our best against every opponent, home or away, in order to get results. It’s a challenge, but it’s a welcome challenge.”
New manager Frank de Boer, who defended league titles twice as a player and three times as a manager (all with Netherlands’ Ajax), wasted no time addressing what’s ahead.
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In a video of de Boer speaking to the team before their first training session Tuesday, he made a point of asking Julian Gressel to discuss the team being “hunted” this season.
“I feel like it’s going to start in preseason,” Gressel said. “Teams will want to show well against us. That’s a good thing because we are going to get it every week.”
Some of Atlanta United’s players said the target won’t be new. It’ll just be larger.
Brad Guzan and Jeff Larentowicz said they felt that during the 2018 season the team was the focus of the league. Part of that may have come from the media attention that comes with averaging more than 53,000 fans. Part of it comes with a record-setting trade for Darlington Nagbe followed by paying a record transfer fee for Ezequiel Barco. Part of it came with the expected exciting style of play. Some came from hosting the All-Star game.
Whatever the reason, it was felt.
“Speaking to guys going into national team camp, speaking to guys around the league, everyone is pumped up to come to Atlanta,” Guzan said. “Everyone is looking forward to playing in front of 75,000, play in front of 50,000. They circle that game on the calendar.
“Now, you add another asterisk by it that we are the MLS Cup champions. There’s still a target. That target changes a little bit.”
Just three teams in MLS history have successfully defended the title: L.A. Galaxy in 2011 and ’12, Houston in 2006 and ’07, and D.C. United in 1996 and ’97.
Atlanta United’s players said they will have different ways of dealing with the pressure of trying to repeat.
Larentowicz, who can have a dry sense of humor when being interviewed so he may have been joking, said he goes through the back door to get into the facility now, rather than use the front door where he would have no choice but to be reminded of the past.
“I don’t need to see it every day,” he said.
Some said dealing with the target and improving the chances of repeating will come down to the trinity of focus, motivation and preparation.
Parkhurst pointed out that the players may be helped by the fact that the current coaching staff didn’t win the trophy. That staff, led by Gerardo Martino, is gone.
“That helps the rest of us make sure that we don’t have a hangover from last year,” Parkhurst said. “These guys want to know what it feels like, too.”
Indeed. Every team wants to win every trophy it can, but it can come with a cost. In addition to the league season, the team will also expend time and energy competing in the CONCACAF Champions League, U.S. Open Cup and hosting the Campeones Cup.
Some of dealing with the target involves having a deep enough squad to withstand not only teams that will try to beat them, but also overcoming bad luck.
The squad has already seen one potential starter, defender Franco Escobar, go down with a shoulder injury sustained on the first day of training that will sideline him for 6-8 weeks. It would be foolish to presume that will be the only injury sustained by a player. The team overcame numerous injuries last year.
Eales, vice president and technical director Carlos Bocanegra and de Boer have been busy trying to strengthen the squad for the number of games it may face this season. There are more moves expected as the team begins to cope with what’s next.
A deep squad is necessary to deal with the pressure and number of games because of the mental and physical toll. Toronto, which won the MLS Cup in 2017, advanced to the finals of the Champions League. But injuries and bad luck tore apart its league season, resulting in it not even making the playoffs last season.
“Very proud of what this club did for the city,” Bocanegra said. “Now, it’s a new year, new era and we are looking forward.”