All 22 teams have given us plenty to talk about as the 2017 MLS season approaches (and yes, standing pat is fodder for discussion, too). But let’s be real: Even fans in other markets are highly curious about the newest kids on the block.
Expansion siblings Minnesota United and Atlanta United have prepared for their maiden MLS voyage in differing ways. Both have clear philosophies taking shape, and reasons for optimism despite the daunting track record of first-year sides struggling mightily in this league.
So what can we expect from the two debutants? Preseason games can be a very unreliable barometer of the campaign ahead. But we’ve tried to tease out a few observations from their recent games just the same. Here’s the rundown.
Style: Probing possession punctuated by blinding breakouts
ATL UTD head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino has often been associated with high pressing and a high defensive line in his well-traveled career. But don’t expect to see a relentless Red Bulls-style press down in Georgia – selective, surgical applications seem more apt. With so many skillful, quick-thinking attackers at the business end of his preferred 4-3-3, this team can pick you apart if you throw too many numbers forward. Tata’s bunch also appear to have methodical build-ups in their tool kit, with defenders who can pass crisply out of the back and plenty of width both up top and from the fullbacks.
Key Player: Miguel Almiron
By now most readers have heard about the Paraguayan’s glowing track record and the big, big clubs that ATL outpaced to get his signature. That doesn’t change the reality that it’s a gamble to hand a 23-year-old MLS newcomer the keys to an expansion team’s attack, however talented he is. Crucially, though, Almiron is surrounded by complementary pieces that will make it difficult for most opponents to key on Atlanta’s No. 10.
From the talent on the field to the boss in the technical area to the $1.5 billion palace they’ll call home by late summer, ATL UTD have spared no expense in building their club from ground up. Pacey young creators like Almiron, Hector Villalba, Josef Martinez, Yamil Asad – and maybe even young Americans Brandon Vazquez and Andrew Carleton, too – provide variety and depth going forward. Meanwhile experienced heads like Carlos Carmona, Jeff Larentowicz and Chris McCann can do the dirty work behind them.
What Needs Work
Kenwyne Jones is the reference point up top, the burly No. 9 to carve out possession and space for his teammates. But can the Trinidadian efficiently finish the chances that will surely be presented to him? And if he gets hurt or can’t do the job, who steps up? Remember that Vazquez is only 18. In defense, the projected starting back line looks technical and cerebral, but can they actually defend stoutly for long periods, as is so often required of expansion teams?
Style: Stout down the spine, opportunistic in transition
Loons coach Adrian Heath used the just-completed Portland preseason tournament to throw a few curveballs at those expecting him to build Orlando City Norse. MNUFC tried out a couple of new (to us) formations, and mixed and matched their underrated attacking components to good effect. Heath seems determined to apply the lessons he learned in charge of OCSC’s expansion campaign two years ago, including an embrace of more direct tactics. Beyond his usual 4-2-3-1, we might see a 4-3-3, a 4-4-2 or even a 4-2-2-2 in the months ahead.
Key Player: Christian Ramirez
While Atlanta often looked abroad – albeit mostly to Latin America – for their roster-building needs, Minnesota have invested in familiar faces with local ties, along with a sprinkle of savvy and steel from CONCACAF and Scandinavian locales. The frontrunner Loons fans call “Superman” epitomizes this – an overlooked US talent who was given a chance in Minny’s NASL days, took it with aplomb and is now being trusted as the chief spearhead. If he makes sense of MLS quickly, his team could make waves in the Western Conference. If not? Well, there’s always the summer transfer window.
At times, MNUFC were delightful to watch in their three games in Portland, especially when preying on turnovers to spring quick transitions. Ramirez and his old friend Miguel “Batman” Ibarra have unmistakable chemistry around the penalty box and Kevin Molino, who often seemed to have a free-ranging role, seems to be catching on to their movements. Johan Venegas was confidently menacing to a degree that rarely showed when he was in Montreal. Further back in the engine room, Collin Martin has turned heads since his under-the-radar acquisition from D.C. United.
*Hat tip to commenter Scott Ayers for pointing out my failure to note here the promising early signs shown by Bashkim Kadrii, who produced one of the most fun moments of the entire preseason to date with his assist of a Venegas strike on Sunday. - CFB
What Needs Work
Rasmus Schuller and Collen Warner might be the top contenders to start in central midfield, and still have to prove they’re an MLS-caliber duo in that critical area. Many of Minny’s key players have scant MLS track record, starting with the vulnerable-looking fullback spots. Josh Gatt looks like a useful pickup, though if our Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle is right, he may need to learn a new position (right back) – and he, like Molino, has to stay healthy.
Catching the pace of their new league poses a tall task for Atlanta and Minnesota. They should get a boost from delirious home crowds, however, and can harbor legitimate ambitions of following Seattle’s example as the only modern expansion side to reach the postseason. At this stage, the biggest priority for both clubs is to stack up a few decent results when the season kicks off next month, showing themselves and the rest of us alike that they can get it done in the games that count. History shows that seasons can't be won in the spring...but they can all too easily be lost.