As conditioned as we locals are to getting pumped up to be let down, the belief here is that Atlanta United isn’t like most Atlanta teams. It has, to invoke a soccer team, quality. It could indeed make the playoffs. There are issues with the defense — the two home losses have come after Atlanta United led 1-nil, which is always frustrating in this sport — but Atlanta United, which stands seventh in the Eastern Conference, nonetheless has the East’s third-best goal differential. That’s known as a leading indicator.
It’s also the second-highest scoring team in MLS, and that’s with Josef Martinez, the league’s player of the month for March, not playing since March. He was hurt while on international duty for Venezuela. He has just returned to training. He’s really good. He’s also an example of why Atlanta United appears fortified in a way expansion teams rarely are.
The two MLS start-ups before Atlanta United and Minnesota were New York City and Orlando City in 2015. Orlando averaged 1.29 points per game — you get three for a win, one for a draw — in Year 1; New York City averaged 1.08. Despite having lost three of its past four matches, Atlanta United is averaging 1.22, and it’s worth noting that it has managed that having chosen a path rather different from the ones followed by NYC and OC.
NYC had David Villa, who won the UEFA Champions League with Barcelona and the 2010 World Cup with Spain. It also had Andrea Pirlo, a 2006 World Cup winner with Italy and a Champions League winner with A.C. Milan, and Frank Lampard, who’d won the English Premier League and the Champions League with Chelsea. Orlando had Kaka, the Brazilian who in 2007 was the world player of the year for A.C. Milan. By any standards — and especially MLS standards — those were huge names. That’s the point: When a MLS club spends big for someone with a lofty European pedigree, it’s buying the name.
Lampard is already gone from these shores, having retired from football at 38. Pirlo is 37 and no longer a NYC regular. Villa and Kaka are 35. Such players are good for ticket sales — and Villa is still very good, period; he scored the opening goal against Atlanta United on Sunday — but some come just to make a lot of money before they hang up their boots. Atlanta United didn’t go the aging Star-Man-with-European-credentials route. It loaded up on younger and faster talent, most of it from the Americas.
Example: Martinez. He’s 23. His national team ranks last among South American nations in this round of World Cup qualifying. His club affiliations have been with Caracas; Young Boys of Bern, Switzerland, and Torino, a middling side in Italy’s Serie A. By global reputation, he’s not a Kaka or even a Lampard. But he’ll get better, which none of famous oldsters will, and Tata Martino is a shrewd enough tactician to put his swift young players in the right places.
We around here forever await the dropping of the other shoe, but it’s hard to see that happening with Atlanta United. This is a rookie team with a sound plan that has made clever hires and will someday move to a permanent and palatial home. It didn’t need a famous face just to fill seats; even in a borrowed stadium, it’s filling them already.
What we’re witnessing is a dip, but this isn’t a case of an expansion team, like water, seeking its level. Atlanta United is a cut above the expansion norm. Very soon, we’ll see it — dare we say? — rise up.