ExtraTime Radio Podcast
LISTEN: If you could only watch one team for the rest of the year, who would it be? The guys try to tab MLS's must-watch side and settle on the league's best No. 9 as well. Plus, tune in for a wildly entertaining interview with Brian Dunseth and a mailbag with hot, lukewarm and cold takes from you, the listeners! Subscribe so you don't miss a show!
Well. Atlanta United, amiright?
The Red Bulls' high press is a suffocating slog for opoonents when it works, and a train wreck when broken. Montreal will lull you to sleep waiting for that flash-in-the-pan counter (All due respect to Nacho the Gawd) and NYCFC will do the same while you're waiting on the buildup out of the back. Houston's got playing direct down, but needs work on the defense. Portland's fun, but we've been there before: this very core earned an MLS Cup two seasons back.
Through three games, it looks like Atlanta's roster-construction OBP is off the charts. To put it in soccer terms, if decisions are passes they're completing pretty much everything, and several look like key assists.
The 23-year-old Venezuelan forward is on loan from Torino, and Atlanta holds an option to purchase. He's already tied a 15-year-old MLS record for quickest to five goals, the rare MLS player or team to make an Andrew Wiebe prediction look golden from the jump. (Sidebar: Chris Wondolowski, still scoring goals)
If Atlanta's to maximize Martinez's early ascension to the peak plateau of MLS strikers – yeah, we're going there – and he keeps up a modicum of scoring heat the rest of the way (given health 15 is conservative, right? Remember only seven players hit that mark last year.) ATL UTD is going to have to pony up to Torino or risk the coming transfer fee going off into the ether.
A few weeks back, in a phone conversation with MLSsoccer.com, longtime EPL executive and current ATL UTD President Darren Eales dropped knowledge on the balance Atlanta aims to strike: maintaining success on the field – important to ownership – even as it develops talent intended to move.
"If we trade a player, it's only going to be because we feel that's the best thing for the club, being able to feed those proceeds into the team itself, into the structure of the club to make the team better," Eales said. "That will always be our approach, and it's not different in that from my time at Tottenham or West Bromwich Albion."
It's possible that conundrum comes quicker than even Eales anticipated, and how they handle this one will loom large in keeping the flames of fan fervor stoked as this expansion project continues to put its boots on the pitch.
On down the roster, where we say a hearty hello to Yamil Asad, who's quickly carving a path free of father footsteps, and smart signings like Greg Garza, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Carlos Carmona – to say nothing of MLS mainstays like captain Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz – Atlanta has created an XI capable of not only playing smart, but playing pretty and playing well.
.@ATLUTD were the first team in the Opta era (since 2010) to control at least 80% of possession over the course of a full game.— Ben Baer (@BenBaer89) March 20, 2017
Able to pivot from back to front foot on a dime, to turn ping-pong possession into a direct-line buzzsaw, Atlanta clearly has opponents off-balance. After working out a few kinks in a respectable opener against the Red Bulls, everyone thought the snow in Minnesota was about to be a major challenge, and Chicago had spent the first two weeks convincing folks that they'd put the cellar in the rearview like Kimmy Schmidt.
Two up, two down. And many more moments to come.