Even by Atlanta standards, this has been the year of the flop.The Falcons finished second in a Super Bowl they led by 25 points. The Hawks were even after four games in their Round 1 series; they were gone in six, triggering a front-office redo. The Braves started 4-0 at SunTrust Park; they’re 1-8 there since. Even one of our interstates collapsed.
The new kid in town looked spiffy at first blush. Atlanta United opened for business with a narrow home loss, then won its next two matches by an aggregate 10-1, then managed two creditable draws in distant environs. It seemed almost too good to be an expansion team. But look now.
After nine games, Atlanta United has 11 points, the same number as Minnesota, another rookie franchise, does after 10. There was thought in soccer circles that Minnesota might well be the worst first-year MLS team ever and (parallel lines here) Atlanta the best. What the heck happened?
In a word, reality. In another word, circumstances. The MLS hasn’t gotten too big for our futbol newbie, nor has Atlanta United gotten too small. This team has been a bit unlucky — its first two losses saw Atlanta United finish with 10 men, one under the usual complement, because of red cards — and has faced a truly wretched schedule.
Six of its first nine games were on the road. Another awaits in nearby Portland on Sunday. Atlanta United has played in Seattle, in Salt Lake City, in the Bronx and twice in Canada. It has played three times at home, which isn’t really home. The oft-delayed opening of Mercedes-Benz Stadium has rendered Atlanta United an extended-stay guest in a Residence Inn, and it went a month between Bobby Dodd Stadium dates because Georgia Tech needed its football stadium for spring football.
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.
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