Atlanta United: 4 surprises this season

Atlanta United FC gather for a team photo before taking on the New York Red Bulls during their first game in franchise history on Sunday, March 5, 2017, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

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Atlanta United FC gather for a team photo before taking on the New York Red Bulls during their first game in franchise history on Sunday, March 5, 2017, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

They’ve played only three games, winning two, but that Atlanta United is being mentioned as a contender in the Eastern Conference, and as possibly matching Chicago in 1998 as the only first-year team to win the MLS Cup, shows just how much of a surprise the season has been.

The Five Stripes are atop the Eastern Conference because of a plus-8 goal differential. Their six points are matched by Orlando City and New York Red Bulls, which defeated Atlanta United 2-1 in its inaugural game.

If Atlanta United remains atop after a four-game road stretch that starts at Seattle on Friday, and continues at Toronto, Montreal and Real Salt Lake, that may be a bigger surprise than even the club’s hiring of former Barcelona and Argentina national team leader Gerardo Martino as manager.

Here are four surprises through the first three games.

The Designated Players. Much is expected of Designated Players in MLS. They have the biggest salaries, therefore they face the most pressure to produce. The league is filled with DPs who never produced for their teams. One, Bryan Rochez, recently was acquired by Atlanta United for a pittance to be a reserve player after his career stalled at Orlando City.

Atlanta United hasn’t faced that issue this season because all three of its Designated Players, Hector Villalba, Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, are contributing to the team’s results.

Martinez leads MLS with five goals and was named the league's player of the week after scoring three goals in a 6-1 win at Minnesota United. Though acquired on a loan from Torino in Italy, Atlanta United made the transfer permanent this week. Operating as a single striker, Martinez has torched opposing centerhalves with his speed and frustrated them with his ability to also play with his back to the goal.

Almiron, operating as an attacking midfielder, has two goals and two assists. He has tracked back on defense and his vision and speed have proved crucial to Atlanta United’s counter-attacks.

Villalba scored his first goal in last week’s 4-0 win over Chicago. One of the faster players in MLS, his speed has curbed opponent’s desires to try to attack down his side because if Atlanta United were to win the ball back, there would be lots of room for Villalba to exploit. He also has an assist.

The defense. Atlanta United has given up three goals this season. Just one of those goals has come during the run of play. One came off a corner kick against the Red Bulls. The other came on a penalty kick in the snow at Minnesota United.

It could be argued that the two set-piece goals could have been avoided. There were three mistakes that contributed to the goal on the corner kick. The foul by Jeff Larentowicz that resulted in the penalty kick wasn’t a clear foul.

Either way, three goals allowed in three games isn’t poor, particularly when considering how quickly Atlanta United tries to break toward the opponent’s goal, which sometimes has left defenders Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Pirez, and defensive midfielder Carlos Carmona or Larentowicz facing superior numbers. Fullback Greg Garza said as the team continues to learn Martino’s tactics, and grew comfortable using them, the defense should play even better.

Should they get beat, Decatur’s Alec Kann leads the league in saves (13, on 15 shots faced)

The rookie. When the starting 11 was announced for the game against Red Bulls there was one big shock: Julian Gressel.

Picked eighth in the first round of January’s SuperDraft, it was assumed that Gressel would be used as a sub, if he even made the game-day 18, because it’s rare that rookies impact the league. Instead, he has started three consecutive games as a center midfield, and his passing ability led to the first two goals against Chicago.

Because of his size and speed, he has also bounced between a second attacking midfielder alongside Almiron, or a second defensive midfielder alongside Carmona. While most of the other first-round picks aren’t even playing for the teams that selected them, Gressel is proving indispensable.

"So the first time we saw Julian was at the draft, and we thought he was a very good player," Martino said. "He understands the concepts of the game really well. He is dynamic, he's good on the ball, and he has been important for us."

The crowd support. Atlanta United has played in front of home crowds of more than 55,000 and 45,000, and a road crowd of more than 35,000.

Atlanta United’s supporters have done their best to re-create the atmospheres that can be seen and heard in the world’s fervent soccer cities.

Gressel, who grew up in Germany and attended games at Bayern Munich, said he had to gather himself after the noise from Atlanta United’s supporters drew his attention during last week’s game.

“As a soccer player growing up, if you have the aspiration to be a pro, you want to play in front of crowds like I’ve been fortunate to play in front of,” he said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling walking on that pitch when everybody is cheering and everybody is so hyped up and everybody is partying in the stands.

“On the field, I remember in the second half, you are on the field and you hear the main supporter’s section going ‘Atlanta’ and the rest of the stadium go ‘United.’ I was on the field and I had to take a deep breath for a second and regroup to focus on the game again. It was breath-taking. It was unreal.”