From a neutral's perspective, Atlanta United were a breath of fresh air in 2017. They played with speed and flair and purpose. They were relentless and ruthless, and seemed to do everything with the attitude that a four-goal win would be worth much more to them than a two-goal win. They aimed for goals, and they aimed to demoralize everybody they played against, and only rarely did they take their foot off the gas.
Obviously that worked to their detriment on some level as they wore out down the stretch. Josef Martinez stoped producing at superhuman rates, Miguel Almiron pulled a muscle, and their wingers were just a step slower than they had been. In pursuit of goals, you could argue that Tata Martino ran his squad into the ground.
But my god, before their tank hit empty they produced some shows – just no apologies blow-outs unlike anything this league had seen since the 1998 LA Galaxy. The high (low?) point was probably what they did to the hapless New England Revolution in September:
Yeah that scoreline was aided and abetted by an early red card for the Revs, but this game was over within 90 seconds. And then the Five Stripes kept pouring it on, and it was glorious. No survivors.
The attack and to a lesser extent the defense got most of the love for Atlanta's monster debut season, which is all understandable. Most of those guys are back – Yamil Asad has been replaced by Ezequiel Barco, while Franco Escobar will take over from Anton Walkes, and however it ends up playing out, both of those guys were/are considered "upgrades" not band-aids – and therefore expectations are mounting.
However, Carlos Carmona is not back, and it would be a big mistake to underestimate just how much of Atlanta's success came from the ability of Carmona and Jeff Larentowicz to keep midfield tight and incisive. That is to say: Soccer is a holistic game, and Atlanta's attackers frequently got the ball in such great spots because Carmona and Larentowicz made central midfield a no-fly zone.
So far in preseason, with Larentowicz playing at center back and newly-acquired
in Carmona's old spot, central midfield has become a "fly right through if you please" zone. It's dangerous to read too much into preseason form and results, and it's stupid to assume that the Five Stripes brass hasn't noticed the same lack of midfield dominance that I have from my
It is, however, naive to assume whoever they bring in will automatically fit as well as Carmona did, and do the selfless grunt work as unapologetically as he did. He was the engine and replacing that is a bigger deal than people seem to realize – it's actually a bigger deal than how Barco does (if the kid flops, they still have Julian Gressel and Andrew Carleton to play on the wing).
I still have Atlanta United in my top 3 Eastern Conference teams regardless, as there's just too much talent to ignore. But take a minute to think about what really makes a soccer team work, and then ask who on Atlanta's roster will bring that to the table. It's an open question that'll need an answer sooner rather than later.