Anything short of making the MLS playoffs in its first season should be considered a disappointment for Atlanta United, according to analysts and former U.S. national team players Alexi Lalas and Stuart Holden.
Citing the hiring of manager Gerardo Martino, the quality of the players such as Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba, Kenwyne Jones and Michael Parkhurst signed, the aggressiveness with which Atlanta United President Darren Eales and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra have pursued those players and the ticket sales, it seems the team is poised to become the first to make the playoffs in their inaugural year since Seattle did so in 2009.
Oh, and they admit that a new team coming in and having success also makes their jobs more interesting.
Speaking during the MLS combine last week in Carson, Calif., Lalas, who was there the day Arthur Blank ceremonially was granted a franchise by MLS, and Holden touched on a variety of topics related to Atlanta United.
Q: How successful could they potentially be?
AL: If you look at them, inevitably you will compare and contrast with the other team that's coming in, Minnesota, and with what's happening in the past.
The way they have gone about it is big, bold and immediately got my attention. So, I’m interested. I’m in.
In terms of the amount of money they’ve spent, the types of players they’ve got; it started with Tata that was an outside-the-box signing and planted a flag that said we are doing something different here and got a lot of people’s attention. Certainly, as opposed to what Minnesota is doing, they’ve gotten much more attention.
Having said that, that raises expectations with what they are going to do. They are still an expansion team. They’ve never played together. In general, I’m in. I’m excited because I think they are going to do things that will push others to do things. And from a television perspective it will give us things to talk about.
Q: Is it possible they are taking too many risks with some of these signings?
AL: No. It's their first year. I think they will be cut a little bit of slack because of history and because it's new. That will only last so long. I don't live there. I don't know ultimately what the culture will be and the expectations will be. When you do big, bold things people expect you to win and people expect you to be successful and expect to see something interesting when they come out.
I love it. I love that they are saying we are here and you need to pay attention. And they are making us pay attention.
Q: What was the best under-the-radar signing?
SH: Michael Parkhurst. You make a savvy move for a veteran defender of U.S. men's national team. He was at Columbus Crew last season. I think when I look at their roster it's a good mix of some MLS veterans, guys like (Jeff) Larentowicz, Jacob Peterson, Michael Parkhurst, guys that fit the team mold.
I know that Carlos Bocanegra over the past two years has travelled more than anyone I know. He’s been down to South America, he’s been all over the continent finding those pieces to go along with that but knowing that they will always have a core of what we would call MLS staples, guys like Larentowicz and guys that know what it takes to win in this league.
When you add Almiron, and then you play a game in Orlando and then fly over to Vancouver — you are doing a massive flight across country — you don’t necessarily know what the league entails: different surfaces, different environments, altitudes, they have surrounded those guys with guys that know what it takes within the league. I think that’s a key.
AL: Greg Garza was a good one.
Q: Which player might feel the most pressure?
SH: Kenwyne Jones, who they signed early. I don't know if he will be under pressure, but he will be a focal point of the team. They have creative wingers around him. It looks like they are setting up to play a 4-2-3-1.
Q: What are some of the challenges that Martino faces as a manager in MLS. There have been mixed results with foreign managers in the league.
SH: The good thing with Martino is that he's had time to see last season and get a feel (for it). They've had time to build the roster. Inevitably, there are challenges that coaches will never understand until they are in this league and dealing with salary cap, players they want, pieces that fit. It has to all kind of fit in there.
AL: Him, like any other coach in MLS, will find very, very quickly that this is a unique league with unique challenges to coaches. He will be challenged more than in any other job he's had because of the parity and manufactured parity with rules and regulations. This is not a league of haves and have nots to the extent that it is in other places.
You actually have to coach. It’s not about buying players. You have to get them better and get better out of the players that you have. That’s what good teams in this league do and that’s what good coaches in his league do.
That’s going to be the challenge. However long this lasts with him, I think he will come out of this a much better coach because he is going to be challenged like he’s never been challenged. It’s not just the travel. The actual day in and day out of having a team that, relative to other leagues in the world, isn’t necessarily better or worse.
This is actually the purest form of coaching. Can you coach them up? Can you make them better than your opposition when the margin is so small?
Q: What holes do they have left to fill? They aren’t very deep on defense.
SH: I like the intent, though. Let's go out and get our attacking core and let's get some creativity. Let's set the tone for the type of team we want to be.
Because as Alexi was saying, you fill that with a couple of experienced defenders, they don’t have to be world-class defenders. You have some leaders in the back that can organize the group in front of them.
The margins in MLS are such that you can be that team, but that’s where it will come down to coaching for Tata Martino. When he plays in Orlando on a Sunday and then you fly to Portland on a Wednesday, what type of strength and depth does he have? That’s what I’d be looking at for this group. An expansion team it’s always good to find depth at certain positions, certainly at the back that’s one area where they need a little bit more.
AL: And how do they want to play? We haven't seen them. Is it a reflection of the coach saying this is how we are going to play come hell or high water in the way we saw Patrick Vieira come in at NYCFC last year. Or will he be more pragmatic and say this is what we've amassed. With the talent we have, and the abilities we have, this is how we are going to play. Defensively, they have good MLS experience. You go through it: (Mark) Bloom, (Mikey) Ambrose, Garza is new but has been around, Zach Loyd, Parkhurst.
A lot of times it comes down to scoring goals. On surface, there are guys out there that can score goals. A lot of times scoring goals is subject to your confidence and consistency of play.
As soon as they can establish this is who we are. Don’t apologize for it. Be who we are. There’s comfort within the team that comes from the coach and this group of players, the better off they are going to be. That can take some time. But MLS can be forgiving, especially in early days.
Q: Are the playoffs realistic?
AL: It goes back to what we were saying in the beginning. With what they've done that should be the goal. I think it will be a disappointment and I think — this word gets thrown around but I don't think it's a negative — but it will be a failure to not make the playoffs, given with the way they've positioned themselves. It's good. I like that. I like that they've thrown down the gauntlet to a certain extent. You don't want a team coming into the league being meek and (saying) let's wait and see.
SH: That comes from the top down. They clearly have the green light to go and spend money. He's not going to want to spend money with no performance on the field. Expectations won't be MLS Cup or bust. There certainly will be an expectation to make the playoffs. Absolutely, with the amount of buzz, the season tickets that have been sold. You want to come into Atlanta and come into this league with a statement of intent. By doing that, you need to make the playoffs.
AL: For us, it's going to be fun to see because we've never been in an environment like that. What is it going to look like, especially in comparison to Cascadia, or NYCFC. That unique representation of what Atlanta is as a soccer community, we're excited to see what that's going to be and how that helps or hinders them going forward.
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