They flooded down out of the MARTA gates around Atlanta’s Bobby Dodd Stadium in giant red-black clouds and set up tailgates under brown and gold and rainbow awnings while a steel-gray southern sky glowered down. Here was a man in a Josef Martinez jersey milling about with a red cup in front of a small grill. There, across the sea of humanity packed between games and cookfires, a group of children kicking around possession on a blacktop.
This was how MLS was officially born into wins-and-losses existence in Atlanta. It was glorious in its way, for a time. And then in a brief flash of lightning it wasn’t.
Atlanta United’s first match was hardly a dud, but its scoreline left the vast portion of the 55,000 in attendance in Atlanta United colors smarting. Yamil Asad’s historic 25th-minute tally was equalized by Daniel Royer in the 76th and atomized by Anton Walkes' own goal as he attempted to block out Bradley Wright-Phillips on a viciously dangerous cross in the 82nd.
After one heck of an occasion in the ATL, here are three things we learned from Atlanta United’s curtain-raiser.
Tata Martino is who we thought he was
Atlanta United spent the majority of the evening hitting on the attack like dust storms riding across the plains, gone as soon as they were here. Look at the approach this way. The further back in the build a team’s leading passer tends to be, the more direct the formula. Atlanta United’s five leading passers by volume, in order: Greg Garza (left back), Leandro Pirez (center back), Carlos Carmona (defensive midfielder), Michael Parkhurst (center back), and Alec Kann (goalkeeper).
This is precisely how coach Tata Martino pushed Barcelona during his time there, and it’s how the Argentinian national team looked under his care. The fact that he’s loaded his lineup with South Americans with that sort of quick-twitch verve on the break shouldn’t be a surprise. Asad completed an anemic 59 percent of his 34 passes on the left flank. In Martino’s system, that doesn’t much matter so long as you’re influencing those quick strikes. Asad scored off a cluster-burst build that came from a Tyrone Mears cross. Speed is king for Martino. And he has it.
The high line is super risk-reward
Atlanta United’s opener was a bit of a tangled mess from a projection standpoint. The New York Red Bulls have probably been the league’s best at the consistent press in the Jesse Marsch era, and nothing was particularly different about that on Sunday. The Red Bulls pulled numbers forward at length, pressing Felipe and Sean Davis to turn possession over to Sacha Kljestan to lead quick strikes as rapidly as possible. In essence, Martino got Martino’d in the last 15 minutes. The league’s resident press expert met the man gunning for his title.
I want you to look at what the passing matrix looked like for Atlanta United’s two center backs, Pirez (5) and Parkhurst (3). Focus on the narrow band of about 15 yards just underneath the halfway line.
There’s a tremendous amount of verticality from both here, not just in intent but in actual concrete passing. There’s a lot of space in behind. As any Argentinian can tell you from the past few years, the biggest knock on Martino’s always been the way he gambles like this. Sometimes, as it did in the first half, the result is blindingly effective. At other junctures, not so much. Atlanta United’s season will hinge on which side of the coin the backline resembles more often than not.
Mixed bag for the new acquisitions
I couldn’t help but see a bit of Luis Mendoza from "Mighty Ducks 2" in Miguel Almiron. Mendoza was a speedster capable of beating anyone on skates, but he struggled to slow down and hit the finesse button in tight quarters. I think Almiron has the potential to be special in MLS, and he had a good enough night as a channel running central attacking midfielder that Atlanta United should be excited beyond measure. But he had a few occasions where he could’ve stood to ease on the brakes a bit earlier and look to play his teammates into space. That’ll come with time and familiarity.
But Martino will want more out of winger Hector Villalba, the man playing to Almiron’s right in Martino’s 4-2-3-1. Villalba clearly has the technical ability to excel, but he was too wasteful and ultimately hit on just 48 percent of his 27 passes and rarely factored into Atlanta United’s dangerous air-raid builds. Martino’s strategy calls for a lot of lofted mid-range balls to the wingers, so it’s probably a matter of adjustment in this case. If Villalba can round into form alongside Asad and Almiron, this attacking front will get even scarier. Either way, Atlanta United established itself as a must-watch going forward.