Atlanta United has defied convention in MLS since it was founded almost five years ago. Attendance records smashed. Managers hired that few thought would come to the U.S. Merchandise sales records. Oh, and an MLS Cup.
So, what’s one more act of defiance by becoming the first MLS team to win this version of the CONCACAF Champions League?
The team, partially because it features the most talent in MLS and is on par with most teams in Mexico, is the favorite of the five MLS teams competing in the Champions League to break LIGA MX’s 10-year hold on the crown. The Five Stripes will play their first game tonight against Herediano in Costa Rica. The second of the two legs will be played Feb. 28 in Kennesaw.
“I would expect that,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said. “We are MLS champs and champions for a reason.”
Three MLS teams have reached the finals since the tournament became the CONCACAF Champions League. Real Salt Lake was defeated by Monterey in the two-legged finals in 2010-11, Montreal by Club America in 2014-15 and Toronto in penalty kicks by Chivas last year.
In each of the past two years, MLS had two teams reach the semifinals. In this year’s version of the tournament, Houston and Red Bulls won the first leg of their first round games. Toronto was blown out in its game. Sporting KC will play tonight.
“Across the board the level is improving,” Parkhurst said.
Atlanta United could win the Champions League because it has the most talented roster in MLS and the deepest.
As Jeff Larentowicz pointed out, the team’s architects, President Darren Eales, Vice President Carlos Bocanegra and former manager Gerardo Martino, built the team to not only win the MLS Cup, but to annually compete in the Champions League.
The team sells Miguel Almiron to Newcastle in the Premier League for an MLS record $27 million. It adds Pity Martinez, the reigning South American Player of the Year. It trades fullback Greg Garza. It adds Brek Shea, who, if focused, may not be as good as Garza on defense, but adds speed and physicality.
Plus, new manager Frank de Boer is almost getting two new players in Ezequiel Barco, who was disappointing last season but looks great this preseason, and the developing Miles Robinson, a centerback who was the team’s first-ever draft pick.
Add those to a roster that includes Darlington Nagbe, arguably the best midfielder in MLS, Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, two of the best centerbacks in MLS, Hector Villalba, one of the fastest forwards in MLS and, lastly, Josef Martinez, the reigning MLS MVP and goal-scoring record-setter.
Talent aside, mentally the team should be strong enough to deal with the stress of a tournament because the roster is filled with players who have competed in important tournaments. Shea has nine appearances in Champions League, Larentowicz six, Nagbe five and Parkhurst one. Pity Martinez has 36 appearances in the Copa Libertadores, Villalba 20, Gonzalez Pirez and Josef Martinez five and Eric Remedi four. Barco has 16 appearances in the Copa Sudamericana. Florentin Pogba has 25 appearances in the UEFA Europa League, Josef Martinez 24 and goalkeeper Brad Guzan nine, in addition to his appearances with the U.S. national team.
“Way our team is built, South Americans that we have with youngers guys who are used to playing in tournament similar to this in conditions similar in South America to what we will probably face,” Parkhurst said. “That will help us. That, combined with overall talent level of the team.”
First, Larentowicz, ever the pragmatist, said Atlanta United must perform well on Thursday or the projections, predictions and moves may not matter.
“I think right now we’re focused on winning the first game,” he said. “Getting the first result. You see last year, and even the year before, you have to get past the first game in a playoff to make it to a final. And much as it’s encouraging that people have faith in us in that way, it’s important that we focus on the task at hand.”
Put it all together and Atlanta United has a chance to make more MLS history.
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