Atlanta United have just finished their first season in MLS. They’ve already set the standard for what each team in the league needs to become.
Atlanta United, after one year in Major League Soccer, redefined what a successful American soccer franchise should look like. A new stadium, the leadership of Tata Martino, and an abundance of young superstars pushed the ATL towards the top of the food chain, and the sky is the limit for the expansion club.
The rest of the MLS currently looks up to Atlanta United. Sure, the Columbus Crew knocked the first-year expansion franchise out of the playoffs in the first round, but ATL became the gold standard for the rest of the league. It takes a lot for a first-year team to break the league attendance record that has stood for 21 years. It also takes a lot for a first-year team to make the playoffs. ATL did it and are still improving, waiting to become the next MLS dynasty and maybe the first MLS franchise to receive international respect.
Atlanta has already done what all MLS teams need to do: all three of ATL’s designated players, players who make more than $335,000, are 24-years-old or younger. MLS has the reputation for being the last chance league for legends to play, and Atlanta’s youth movement goes against the traditional recipe for success in the league.
The new MLS franchise shares a stadium with the city’s American football team, the Atlanta Falcons, but United’s matches do not act as mere sideshows to Falcons games. The city wanted an MLS franchise so badly that the stadium got commitment from beloved American fast-food restaurant Chick-Fil-A as a dining option, even though the chain closes on Sundays, the day that most NFL games occur. Nationally, the stadium received some pockets of criticism since it put the restaurant in an NFL stadium, but the owning company of Mercedes-Benz Stadium knew that ATL United fans would give the restaurant plenty of business on MLS match days.
The world knows Major League Soccer as a place where teams play almost no defense. Plenty of videos exist in relation to that topic. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez is the only center back in the top ten of WhoScored’s rating rankings, and central midfielder-turned-right back Graham Zusi, who plays for the United States National Team, is the only other defender in the top ten. Atlanta dominates the WhoScored top 10 players, even with most of their players in their first season in MLS.
Atlanta United has already written the template for what a football club, not just an MLS club, should aspire to become. Youth, talent, and a great fan base make the expansion franchise arguably the most well-prepared side for the future of the league and the game in America as a whole.
Dominant Ratings, Reaping Awards
Three of WhoScored’s top 10 rated MLS players are Atlantans. Prolific Colombian forward Josef Martinez sits third with a rating of 7.49, Argentine defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez sits seventh with a 7.38 rating, and Newcomer of the Year Miguel Almiron rests in eighth place with a 7.36 rating.
The club’s all-around youth makes their unprecedented success in their inaugural season so much more impressive: just one player with a top 10 rating is younger than Martinez (24-years-old), Gonzalez Pirez (25), and Almiron (24), and that is Cristian Roldan of the Seattle Sounders at 22 years of age.
The dynamic duo of Martinez and Almiron only scratches the surface of Atlanta United’s squad depth and skill. Martinez and Almiron are the fourth-highest assister-and-scorer combination in MLS with five combinations ending in goals, and Martinez scored 19 goals, giving him the fourth highest goal total in the league, but statistically, neither Almiron nor Martinez proved himself as ATL’s best decisive passer. Atlanta’s two 23-year-old Argentine attackers sit in MLS’s top 10 for assists: Yamil Asad and Hector Villalba.
The top five players based on WhoScored’s ratings are all aged 25 or younger. No other MLS team accomplished this feat for the 2017 season, Real Salt Lake being the closest with all but one player in their top five older than 25.
By the time the MLS season awards occured in November and December, Atlanta United received nearly all of the recognition they could ask for. Despite his stellar WhoScored rating, the league overlooked Gonzalez Pirez for consideration as part of the MLS Best XI and the Defender of the Year prize, beyond that however, the 5-Stripes pop up in almost every category.
Two United players earned a spot in the Best XI: Miguel Almiron and Jozef Martinez, and the latter finished fifth in the race for the Golden Boot, while the former finished fifth in the Most Valuable Player voting race. Almiron brought home the Newcomer of the Year award, in which he beat Martinez and Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic. To put the cherry on top of an incredible inaugural season, 23-year-old center midfielder Julian Gressel won MLS Rookie of the Year, finishing the season with five goals and nine assists.
Transfer Market Aggression
In addition to the combination of youth and skill Tata has at his disposal, the club acquired United States National Team member Darlington Nagbe from the Portland Timbers for north of $1.5 million less than a week after the MLS Cup Final. Nagbe is one of the most well-respected players in the league, and at 27 years of age, his best years still sit in front of him. The versatile attacker appeared 29 times for Portland, and he was in the first XI in each of those 29 appearances.
The American-Liberian midfielder scored just three goals and three assists, but he sits atop the 2017 list for most accurate passers, as he boasts a 92.1% success rate. Furthermore, he finished ninth in the league in dribbles per match with 1.6. The club can depend on the hardworking winger/center midfielder for a solid 1.5 tackles per game.
The team still has unfinished business in the market after splashing the cash on Nagbe. Additionally the club has permanently signed USMNT left back Greg Garza after a successful loan spell last season, grabbed a versatile defender in 22-year-old Franco Escobar from Newell’s Old Boys, and Martino’s side has identified more South American talent to add to the ranks. Ezequiel Barco may replace Yamil Asad, as the latter considers returning to Velez Sarsfield in Argentina, who loaned him out to Atlanta for this past season. Barco is only 18, yet he has some top clubs in Europe chasing after his signature.
If Atlanta brings Barco to America, that could go down in history as one of the biggest coups in league history. The league has housed big names at the end of their careers, with the likes of David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, David Villa, and Kaka gracing American soil during their last days as footballers. One thing that the league has not done is develop a legitimate superstar from developmental stages to prime years. Atlanta would have to fork over huge money by MLS standards, but the prospect of developing the first MLS-made superstar may outweigh the league’s tradition of financial prudence.
The final major component of Atlanta’s setup is their emphasis on youth outside of the first team. In the United States, youth sports are more money-based than in Europe: the “pay to play” model in place makes high-level youth sports only accessible for kids whose families can afford the thousands of dollars in fees to get them on a travel team, which is the best way for a kid to develop into a good footballer.
The main issue with this system is the fact that these youth clubs are primarily businesses. The main reason the clubs want to produce good players is so that more players will flock to that club, which will bring in more money. In Europe, professional teams have comprehensive youth setups that develop players before they reach the age of 10. Atlanta defies the “pay to play” setup: they partnered with Georgia United, a free-to-play club with volunteer coaches.
The combination of the established reputation that Georgia United has in the state and Atlanta United’s money helped the MLS club find teenage gems like Andrew Carleton, Justin Garces, and Chris Goslin, all of whom represented the United States at the under-17 World Cup in India in October. Georgia United already made partnerships with the top youth organizations in the state, and GU acted as the gold standard for Georgia’s youth soccer scene: the best players in their late teens would join the club so it could challenge for a national championship.
After seeing Atlanta United partnering with the club, GU now pays the coaches for their work, which gives them more incentive to develop ATL’s future stars as well as the USMNT. Additionally, the resources of the MLS franchise gives the scouts more freedom: they do not have to worry about whether or not a player can afford to join the team, since this club does not follow the ridiculous “pay to play” model that plagues the game in America.
ATLUTD’s youth setup has its players moving away from the university game, which does not give the best players the competition they need to aid them in reaching their full potential, although it is the more traditional route for young players to follow. Many careers of American footballers go to waste in university football because the players do not play in competitive environments that push them to their limits, allowing them to reach their full development.
Atlanta prioritizes developement and competition, regardless of wealth or any other factor that traditionally limits players from their full potential in America. This system will provide Atlanta with the foundation for success in Major League Soccer for decades to come, and if more clubs follow what the young club has done in just a few years, then MLS and the United States National team will improve exponentially.