On Saturday, Columbus Crew SC travel south to Atlanta for the first ever meeting with one of MLS’s newest clubs, Atlanta United. Our Josh Mlot has a full preview of this match, but let’s take an introductory look at Atlanta’s team and their first season in MLS.
Atlanta, owned by billionaire Arthur Blank (who also owns the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons) and colloquially referred to as “the Five Stripes,” was announced as a new MLS franchise on April 16, 2014. At the time of the announcement, Blank and the Falcons were in the process of building the brand new Mercedes Benz Stadium, which will be home to United after it’s (hopeful) July, 2017 completion.
With Mercedes Benz Stadium still under construction, Crew SC will meet the Five Stripes on the grass turf of the team’s temporary home, Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium. When the Black & Gold enter Bobby Dodd, they will be met with a full stadium of supporters marking Atlanta’s sixth sell out of the 2017 MLS season.
United blazed a new trail for MLS expansion sides, choosing to acquire dynamic, young players instead of the typical older veterans who would sell jerseys. The Five Stripes signed exciting, U.S. youth player Andrew Carleton to the clubs first ever Homegrown deal, followed by the acquisition of young Designated Player Hector Villalba from the San Lorenzo in Argentina. Management’s biggest statement of competitive intent came with the signing 23-year-old Paraguayan attacker Miguel Almiron as the team’s first Designated Player, bolstering a young and dangerous attacking front.
As if there wasn’t enough young attacking talent already with the team, Atlanta added Venezuelan international Josef Martinez in early 2017, whose hat trick against Minnesota United led the Five Stripes to the team’s first ever MLS win.
On the defensive front, Atlanta acquired MLS veterans to anchor the young, attack-minded team. Former Crew SC center back Michael Parkhurst became United’s first captain and anchors their backline, playing behind defensive midfielder and MLS veteran Jeff Larentowicz. American loanee Greg Garza, from Club Tijuana, adds an attacking presence to the Five Stripes’ defense from the left back position.
Stylistically, Atlanta fits into manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s typical style. Atlanta runs an attack-heavy system, like Martino’s teams at Barcelona and Argentina, thriving on short, quick passes to break down an opponent. After a turnover in the attacking third, the Five Stripes employ an aggressive high press that could spell trouble for a Crew SC side who struggles against the press.
In its inaugural season, United has fared about as well as could be expected for the typical expansion team, but this is not a typical expansion team. Atlanta’s tactful roster creation and early-season success built on already high expectations, but the Five Stripes have fallen back to Earth after starting out with eight points in five matches, the side currently sitting in eighth place in the East with 18 points. United looked to regain footing with two consecutive wins to end May, but have started June with two straight away losses. As could be expected, ATL have shown the struggles of a young, expansion team.
The Five Stripes have scored a league high 28 goals, which drastically outpaces their expected goal (xG) performance of 16.12. Some credit can be attributed to Atlanta’s system, but there may be some luck involved as well, including catching Minnesota United at its weakest and putting up four goals against a Houston Dynamo team missing multiple starters. A regression toward the xG total could always be on the horizon.
Defensively, Atlanta United has given up the second-most goals (22) of any Eastern Conference team this season (behind Crew SC’s 26). Atlanta will likely not bunker against Columbus, so if Black & Gold are able to overcome the high press and possess the ball in the attacking half, there may be a chance to come away with an away win.