Baer: Consider expansion side Atlanta United an MLS Cup contender

Josef Martinez goal celebration-ATL-SJ-7.4.17

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had an arbitrary list of teams that I think are capable of winning MLS Cup. As we know, I have a great track record at predicting these types of things:

That list included the Chicago Fire, FC Dallas, New York City FC, Sporting Kansas City and Toronto FC. All of those teams have flaws, but minor ones compared to those of the other 17 MLS competitors. Yet there was one team that had me wavering: Atlanta United.

It was hard to judge, with so many of their games on the road and their star striker missing for three months after starting only three matches. Despite that, they weathered their tough schedule and reeled off a respectable 6-7-3 start. This put them near the playoff line just as Josef Martinez was ready to return to the starting XI. With the Venezuelan international back in the fold, it’s become clear that the “Group of Five” needs to be a “Group of Six” (You can catch where the other sixteen teams fall in Matt Doyle's "MLS by tiers" column Wednesday night).

If Martinez had been playing the whole season and kept the pace he’s set, he’d be on track to score about 45 goals. That’s obviously an insane figure considering that the most goals ever scored in an MLS season is 27 (though that may get broken by another player in 2017). What it does tell us is that Tata Martino has one of the top strikers in MLS at his disposal.

Pairing an elite finisher with a high-press system that gives him plenty of chances? That spells disaster for opponents. And when that system is not generating the chances needed, they can turn to Miguel Almiron to create something special. While Almiron is not one of the top chance-creators from open play in terms of quantity, he is when looking at the quality. His average of .41 big chances created per 90 minutes is the second-highest rate in MLS among players who have played 800 minutes (David Accam, .61).

Their defense can be prone to mistakes, as evidenced by the goalChris Wondolowski scored on Tuesday night, but it is not a fatal liability. Their 1.42 goals against average ranks about middle of the pack in the league and it is better than would-be contenders in Columbus Crew SC, Houston Dynamo and Portland Timbers. The D has also shown some improvement, as evidenced by their clean sheets against Colorado and Columbus in the two games before Tuesday night’s 4-2 win against the San Jose Earthquakes.

There is one major factor that has gone yet unmentioned: the potential boon of their remaining schedule. Nine of their remaining 15 remaining games will be played in Atlanta. Six of those games will come in a row, over the course of just 18 days in September. Only Montreal will play more games at home over the course of the rest of the season and we know how big of an advantage home field is in MLS. If Atlanta keep up their rate of 2.25 points per game at home, they should hit 50 points before even dipping into their remaining road dates. Speaking of those six games, only two will come against teams currently above the playoff line.

The rest of MLS should be scared of a team that looks to be hitting their stride as we enter the final half. A team more than worthy of being called a contender.