Abrupt end to last season leaves Atlanta United wanting more

By almost any measure – wins, attendance, merchandise sold, sweeping excitement – Atlanta United’s first season was a success.

The expansion team won 15 games, set numerous attendance records and its crest could be found on flags and shirts throughout metro Atlanta. The expansion franchise quickly captured the attention of the region. Its breakneck style of play under manager Gerardo Martino made Atlanta United the must-watch team in MLS.

But was it truly a success? The players who lived through it are torn because of the abrupt loss to Columbus in the playoffs. It was an exciting game that players for the favored Atlanta United felt they should have won if not for the heroics of the Crew goalkeeper. But if the goal is to win the MLS Cup, as goalkeeper Brad Guzan notes, then the team didn’t meet that goal.

“Everyone talks that it was a success,” he said. “As an expansion team, we did all these wonderful things. But at the end of the day we are here to win trophies. In that sense, we fell short.

“We want to make sure that again we put ourselves in position to do that.”

Atlanta United opens its second season on Saturday at the Houston Dynamo.

The team started last season not knowing what to expect. Not this season.

It was funny to hear Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz, two league veterans with more than 600 appearances between them, discuss how even they weren’t sure what was about to happen before the franchise’s first game last season.

“No idea if we were going to blow them out or get blown out,” Parkhurst said. “This year, it’s totally different. Every team knows what to expect when they play against us. They have to bring their A game and will bring their A game. We aren’t going to surprise anyone this year with how we do things.”

That reputation was established last season with the dynamic scoring of Josef Martinez, speed and vision of Miguel Almiron, daring of Hector Villalba and work rate of Yamil Asad. The defense, criticized early for giving up easy goals, found its footing and quietly became one of the better back groups that allowed the second-fewest goals in the league.

Still, nothing came easy. As well as the team could play, it could also go into slumps. That, combined with how tough the East was through the first few months, meant Atlanta United didn’t qualify for the playoffs until September when it was in the midst of a crucible of eight games in 24 days.

After qualifying for the playoffs as the fourth seed, the team re-wrote its goals, only to see those goals end in a shootout loss to Columbus before the ink could dry. A shootout loss in the knockout round at home ended the run.

“It was a success for the club looking back, but we knew that the team is capable of more and the expectations are higher this year,” Parkhurst said.

Guzan said the team hasn’t yet met to discuss its goals for this season.

“Common theme was we had no excuses,” he said. “We are going to be as good as we can and we had the talent to be very good.”

Not every player who was on the team is as dejeced this year as Guzan still seems about the loss.

“Our style of play, it was two months into the season and everyone knows we are an offensive-playing team, high press and it’s just an exciting game when Atlanta is playing,” midfielder Kevin Kratz said. “To achieve this, within a few months, is a very big thing. Now, we have to make the next step forward and get the results.”

To do that, the team has upgraded its offense, if that’s possible for a team that scored the second-most goals in the league and the most ever by an MLS expansion team. Though Asad didn’t return, the team bought Ezequiel Barco, a world-class talent who will miss the first weeks of the season after suffering a quad injury. Though the team sold Carlos Carmona, it traded for Darlington Nagbe, a more offensive-minded defensive midfielder to build on a squad that led the league in assists.

Players said they learned valuable lessons about how to grind out points on the road, which is where some of the slumps happened last season. The team went 11-3-3 at home, ninth best in the league, and 4-6-7 on the road, which was third best.

“Throughout the year, you could see us getting better and better as we went away from home,” fullback Mikey Ambrose said. “I don’t think it was bad that expectations were so high, but they were just a little unrealistic.

“This year, we’ve learned how to go away from home, get results on the road, it will help us go further in the playoffs and it’ll give us a better seeding in playoffs, as well.”

The newcomers think perhaps things were better than the final result.

“From a guy looking from an outside perspective, you are an expansion team, you turned into one of the best attacking sides in the league, you made the playoffs,” fullback Sal Zizzo said. “It’s always disappointing to come off a great season like that and lose in the first game, but from an outsider, it was a very successful season.

“Our goals are much higher this season, to go much further than the playoffs, and take it all the way to the MLS Cup.”