5 Atlanta United storylines to watch

Atlanta United forward Giorgos Giakoumakis (7) reacts with the crowd after scoring his team’s first goal during the first half against Columbus Crew in Game 2 of a first-round MLS playoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Atlanta United forward Giorgos Giakoumakis (7) reacts with the crowd after scoring his team’s first goal during the first half against Columbus Crew in Game 2 of a first-round MLS playoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. (Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

It’s been a few seasons since Atlanta United won its most recent trophy.

The Five Stripes will kick off their eighth MLS season Feb. 24 at defending champ Columbus, which knocked them out of the playoff last season.

Atlanta United’s starting 11 looks loaded. Back are leading scorer Giorgos Giakoumakis and assist-provider Thiago Almada. Back are wingers Xande Silva and Saba Lobjandize, who provided dynamism in the last third of the season. Back are fullback Brooks Lennon and Caleb Wiley, who have each made appearances for the U.S. men’s national team. Back is Tristan Muyumba, who provided some toughness and awareness in the central midfield that was needed in the first two-thirds of last season.

Those familiar faces are joined by several new ones, many of whom are expected to be starters, as the team hopes to win its first trophy since 2019, when it captured the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup. There will be opportunities. The team has a relatively easy draw in the Leagues Cup group stage, which may make up for the fact that the Eastern Conference is loaded this season.

Here are five storylines to watch this season:

DP production. Most MLS teams are only as successful as the production of their Designated Players. Atlanta United’s DPs last season, Thiago Almada, Giorgios Giakoumakis and Luiz Araujo, before the latter was sold to Flamengo and replaced by Saba Lobjandize, combined to score 34 goals with 28 assists. Giakoumakis, who scored 17 goals, played well enough that he was in the running for the Golden Boot until the season’s final weeks. He was named the league’s Newcomer of the Year. He has said several times his hope this season is to win the Golden Boot because if he is scoring goals, the team likely is winning. Almada finished with 11 goals and 19 assists. He was named the MLS Young Player of the Year. Lobjanidze, who arrived during the summer window, scored three goals with four assists in just nine appearances.

This season’s team has the potential to eclipse its single-season scoring record of 70 goals set in 2017 and matched in 2018. Because of the plethora of attacking talent that includes Xande Silva, Brooks Lennon and Caleb Wiley and Tyler Wolff, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the scoring spread around, with no player producing more than 15 goals. A concern would be that according to metrics, Atlanta United last season should have scored 48 goals, 20 less than its 66, according to fbref.com’s expected goals metric. If the probabilities even out this season, there may not be as much fireworks at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The defense. If the team isn’t scoring as often as it did last season, it could still be a force in the playoffs if its defensive metrics also come closer to real-life. Atlanta United gave up 53 goals last season, the most of any team that made the playoffs. Its opponents should have scored 46, according to fbref.com. The team tried to fix its defense with some moves made during the summer window. Adding Silva and Lobjanidze allowed manager Gonzalo Pineda to move Lennon and Wiley from wingers to fullbacks. Luis Abram also moved into the starting lineup as a centerback beside Miles Robinson.

The team allowed 1.4 goals per game in its final 10 regular-season matches after allowing 1.6 in its first 24. Vice President Carlos Bocanegra added several players during the offseason to try to strengthen that defense. Those additions include a presumed starter at defensive midfielder, Bartosz Slisz, at least one starter at centerback, Stian Gregersen, and possibly another, Derrick Williams, and possibly a goalkeeper, Josh Cohen. During its first four preseason friendlies, the starters allowed only one goal.

Summer window. Atlanta United has never shied from trying to improve itself in summer transfer windows. Last year brought Silva, who scored two goals and three assists in 10 appearances, Lobjanidze and backup striker Jamal Thiare. This season the importance of the window will be on which player(s) could be going out. Almada is considered one of the world’s better young players. So far, no team has made a legitimate offer to sign the attacking midfielder. It’s only a matter of time. In addition to leading Atlanta United’s offense, he recently led Argentina’s efforts to qualify for the Summer Olympics and was on the team that helped Argentina win the 2022 World Cup.

If Atlanta United sells Almada, the team must move quickly to find his replacement. The team has flexibility. If Almada was sold, which would open one DP slot, the team also could use allocation money to buy down Lobjandize’s contract and open two DP slots, giving it the possibility to add two potential impactful players. The team may also receive offers for Wiley, who has two appearances for the U.S. men’s national team and may be on the squad representing the country in the Paris Olympics.

Fast start. The first nine matches this season won’t be easy. Atlanta United will open at Columbus, the defending MLS champs. It also will face Cincinnati, the Supporters Shield winners; New England and Chicago, who were very active in the winter window and should be much-improved from last season; Orlando, which finished second in the East; Philadelphia, a team that has given the Five Stripes problems for seasons; and NYCFC, which has a unique home-field advantage at Yankee Stadium.

If Atlanta United wants to prove that it is a contender to win the league, it has a chance with good results from the first nine matches. It also is important because the starting lineup could feature as many as 10 players who could get called into their national teams for the Olympics, Copa America or other matches during seasons. Atlanta United may be without them for key games. Getting points at the beginning of the season, when the team should be at its strongest, would provide a necessary margin for later.

Depth needs to contribute. To that point, Atlanta United’s homegrown signees and those drafted will need to produce. That group includes Wolff, midfielders Jay Fortune and Nic Firmino, fullback Aiden McFadden, centerback Noah Cobb and winger Luke Brennan. The team has veterans who need to show they can score. Derrick Etienne was considered a slam-dunk signing as a free agent before the 2023 season. However, he failed to score and notched two assists in 21 appearances. He lost his starting spot and then lost his spot as a depth piece after the summer window. He has worked out as an attacking midfielder this preseason.

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Atlanta United’s 2024 schedule

Feb. 24 at Columbus, 2 p.m.

March 9 vs. New England, 7:30 p.m.

March 17 vs. Orlando, 7 p.m., FS1

March 23 at Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

March 31 vs. Chicago, 3:30 p.m., Fox

April 6 at NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

April 14 vs. Philadelphia, 2:30 p.m., Fox

April 20 vs. Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

April 27 at Chicago, 8:30 p.m.

May 4 vs. Minnesota, 7:30 p.m.

May 11 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

May 15 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

May 18 at Nashville, 1:30 p.m.

May 25 vs. LAFC, 7:30 p.m.

May 29 at Miami, 7:30 p.m.

June 2 vs Charlotte, 4:30 p.m., Fox

June 15 vs. Houston, 7:30 p.m.

June 19 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 22 at St. Louis, 8:30 p.m.

June 29 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

July 3 at New England, 7:30 p.m.

July 6 at Real Salt Lake, 9:30 p.m.

July 13 at Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 17 vs. NYCFC, 7:30 p.m.

July 20 vs. Columbus, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 24 at L.A. Galaxy, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 31 at Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14 vs. Nashville, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 18 vs. Miami, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 21 at Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 28 at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 2 vs. Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 5 vs. Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 19 at Orlando, 6 p.m.