The 2017 Major League Soccer regular season doesn’t start for another two weeks, but Columbus Crew SC get its first taste of league action on Saturday.
It will also be the team’s first look at MLS expansion side Atlanta United as part of the Carolina Challenge Cup. This is the first of three matches in the tournament as the Black & Gold will also face the Charleston Battery on Wednesday and the Seattle Sounders the following Saturday (along with a Saturday morning scrimmage with Costal Carolina).
On top of all of that, it will give fans a first look at some of the new additions for this Columbus side that looks to rebound from a very disappointing 2016.
Questions for Dirty South Soccer
Massive Report: There are a lot of expectations for United to do well in the club's debut season. MLS has seen mixed results throughout the league history with expansion sides. Could you tell Crew SC fans why Atlanta will be a playoff team in 2017?
Dirty South Soccer: Unlike most Atlanta supporters and much of the MLS media, I've tried to temper my expectations for the inaugural season exactly because of the struggles we've seen with expansion sides in the past. However, I think what can make Atlanta different from past expansion clubs is the unique way they've gone about building themselves.
They hired former Barcelona and Argentina manager Tata Martino, who one can argue is already the most world-renowned head coach in MLS history. Atlanta United's front office understood that Martino not only brings a wealth of coaching experience, but can also be used as a recruiting tool to bring young, exciting South American players to the club. He's certainly done that with the signings of Miguel Almiron, who Chelsea and Arsenal were reportedly interested in, as well as Josef Martinez and Carlos Carmona who were both with Serie A clubs last month. Now add MLS veterans like Michael Parkhurst, Jeff Larentowicz, Zach Loyd and Jacob Peterson to the equation and you have a balanced group of promising up-and-coming players that can be taught how to adjust to one of the most peculiar leagues in the world.
Atlanta is going to struggle at some point, no doubt about it. The big question is, how long will that struggle last? If they can weather the storm for the first two-thirds of the season and remain within a reasonable distance from the 6th playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, I like their odds of moving on to the postseason playing six of their last eight matches at home.
Again, I'm trying to stay level-headed about Atlanta United's first season, though it certainly seems to get harder with every passing day.
MR: Off the field, what is the vibe like for this team in Atlanta? Fans love something new, but do you get the sense that once the shine wears off, the ATL will still be in full support of this team?
DSS: I can't imagine there is a fanbase in MLS more excited for the 2017 season than Atlanta United's. Regardless of what events the club hosts, people come in droves to show their support. Last September, over 1,000 fans were in attendance to watch the first home U-18 match. Last week, over 12,000 came to Atlanta's first ever preseason match in Chattanooga, a reported 8,000 of which were Atlanta United supporters. And a few days ago, the club announced that over 40,000 tickets have been sold for our season opener against the New York Red Bulls. It really is an exciting time to be an Atlanta soccer fan.
Yes, fans love something new. However, the amount of support that's been shown for a team that hasn't even played their first MLS match yet is telling. The club has sold nearly 30,000 season tickets. I'm going to assume if you're a season ticket holder, you're planning on attending most home matches.
At the end of the day though, long-term support of any team anywhere in the world has a lot to do with performance. If Atlanta United lights up MLS, I certainly expect us to compete with the Seattle Sounders attendance records. However, if Atlanta United looks every bit like an expansion side is expected to look, then the casual fan will certainly lose some interest.
Now with that being said, it's a nice feeling to know that even if Atlanta has a bad first year, our attendance figures will still likely exceed the league average by a wide margin simply due to the amount of season ticket holders.
Atlanta is a soccer city. That much is obvious now.
MR: What will you be keeping your eye on the most in these three Carolina Challenge Cup games? What's the biggest question you're still trying to answer before the season starts?
DSS: I'm really interested to see how our midfield shapes up. There are five players in Josef Martinez, Yamil Asad, Carlos Carmona, Chris McCann and Jeff Larentowicz who are either still fighting for a spot in the starting XI or whose roles are still uncertain in the starting XI. Also, our starting goalkeeper situation is completely up in the air. It'll be interesting to see who Martino ultimately prefers in goal until July when Brad Guzan arrives.
The most obvious question I have is how will Atlanta do against MLS competition. We definitely saw Martino's preferred tactics against Chattanooga last week(play from the back, quick passing, counter after opposing set pieces), but can that translate against teams with a lot more quality, especially this early in the preseason?
I guess we'll find out.
To see Massive Report’s answers to Dirty South Soccer’s questions heading into this preseason game, check out out their Three Questions.