One year ago around this time, Atlanta United were seven games into their inaugural season and boasting a 3-2-2 record. The atmosphere was already fantastic, the fans were excited, and of course, the Orlando trash talk was plentiful. As the season moved forward, fans were able to learn more about their new, beloved squad, and watched them fight their way towards earning a home-field advantage for the MLS Cup playoffs. The season ended in disappointing fashion when the Columbus Crew topped the Five Stripes in penalty kicks thanks to a world-class showing from Zack Steffen, the Crew’s goalkeeper. It was an unfortunate way to end what was one of the best inaugural seasons in MLS expansion history, but there was much to look forward to.
How much? Probably more than anyone expected.
Here we are, nearing the end of April and the eighth week of the 2018 season, and Atlanta has once again placed themselves among the top teams in the league. After an embarrassing season opener against the Houston Dynamo, the Five Stripes have played six straight matches without being beaten, giving them a 5-1-1 record. Their form has been impressive enough to earn them the number one spot on the most recent MLS Power rankings, despite having fewer points than NYCFC and Sporting Kansas City.
Atlanta United have played so well that anything less than a championship would be a disappointment to the Five Stripe faithful. But why? Why would anyone discuss championships so early in the season? Typically, it would be ridiculous, but not in this case.
Something feels different. So what is it?
For starters, this team knows how to win regardless of the circumstances. Last season, Atlanta United lived and died by the high press. The team relied on capitalizing on the mistakes of their opposition and going full speed for all ninety minutes. This season’s squad has proven already that they can press you all game long, or send players back and focus on the counter-attack. We’ve seen examples of the high press and speedy attack against Vancouver and LAFC, and we’ve seen the team park the bus for nearly 60 minutes against Minnesota United. No matter what obstacle this team has faced, they’ve found ways to get a result, and that is something that separates the 2018 squad from the inaugural squad.
Second, the Five Stripes have proven so far that they can play with the better teams in the league even without fielding their best eleven players. When Atlanta lost Josef Martinez early last season, they found themselves on the wrong end of two straight 3-1 results before finding somewhat of a mojo until his return. This season, United have won matches without key players such as Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Hector Villalba, Franco Escobar and Ezequiel Barco. All the injuries have been overshadowed by stellar form from the players who are healthy, but it is interesting to speculate over who will be in Tata Martino’s starting xi when everyone is back to full strength.
Finally, Atlanta United reserves are developing, and that’s a scary thought. Depth was an issue for the Five Stripes last season, and they were never able to reach their full potential without a certain eleven players on the field. This season, Kevin Kratz, Andrew Wheeler-Ominu, Romario Williams, Sal Zizzo and Andrew Carleton have all proven themselves to be worthy of seeing the field, and the team hasn’t lost much of a step with them getting playing time. Chris McCann and Julian Gressel have also developed into high-quality MLS players.
Is it still early? Yes, of course, but there is a big difference between this years team and last. Barring some incredibly unusual circumstance, fans should be able to sit back and enjoy the Five Stripes earn their second consecutive home-field advantage for this years MLS Cup playoffs.