Atlanta United move into their forever home on Sunday. Only there’s no time to unpack, settle in and get comfortable at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Not when they’re perched tenuously above the playoff line as they embark on a historically busy, make-or-break month.
That Atlanta’s inaugural MLS season has been a massive success isn’t in doubt. Atlanta is awash in red, black, and gold. They’re chasing league attendance records across the board – average per game, single game, and cumulative – and Arthur Blank’s investment in a world-class training facility to house the world-class players he spent eight-figures to sign has raised the bar for all of MLS.
But will Atlanta United become the first expansion team since the Seattle Sounders to make the playoffs? Will the supporters get the kind of immediate postseason gratification that could launch the club to even greater heights? Will games in hand equal points or missed opportunities? Those questions will define Year 1 in Atlanta from a competitive standpoint, and they rest almost entirely on Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The building will sparkle. The speakers will boom. The 360-degree video board will be the envy of the league. The Five Stripes faithful will bring the noise, same as at Bobby Dodd. But will all that translate to the sort of home-field advantage that translates to wins, points and a playoff spot? And can Atlanta do it all on short rest?
From Sunday when FC Dallas come to town (3:30 pm ET | FS1, MLS LIVE in Canada) through Oct. 3 when Minnesota United makes the trip east, Atlanta play will play eight games – seven at home and all eight on turf thanks to a trip to New England – in 24 days, a clip only matched by the Revolution back in 1996. Then they’ll finish the season against Eastern Conference royalty, at the Red Bulls and home to Toronto. In other words, best to pick up points on the front end and not leave it late.
“We always said September was the business month for us, we’ve got to get it done and this is kind of our make-or-break month,” technical director Carlos Bocanegra said. “We’re fortunate to have a lot of games at home but saying that it’s Saturday-Wednesday, Saturday-Wednesday pretty much all month now, so it’s still difficult. Teams will come in fresh, teams will come in tired so it’s all different, there’s a lot of variables. But just because we’re at home doesn’t make it any easier.”
That’s especially true since Atlanta have no experience at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to draw upon, save for an open practice that drew 20,000 plus.
MLSsoccer.com’s own Ben Baer did the admittedly inexact math, and it looks like it will take between 48-51 points to stay above the line in the Eastern Conference. Through 24 games, Atlanta have 36 points. Eight of their last 10 games are at home. Thirty points are on the table, half of which would almost certainly put them in the playoffs.
Win four of their last 10 and draw a game or two, and they ought to feel quietly confident about a Knockout Round appearance. Win five and pick up a few draws, and they could host that match. Anything less, and Atlanta will be looking over their shoulder at the Montreal Impact, who’ve made late-season and playoff runs part of their DNA over the past two seasons.
Can Atlanta do it? Yes, of course. They have plenty of talent, MLS veterans to lead the way, an experienced coach and a crowd that’s driven them forward all year. Will they, considering they haven’t won in four games and are coming off a 14-day break? That’s another question entirely.
For starters, that break is misleading. Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, the club's two most influential attacking players, haven’t been resting. They had World Cup qualifying to worry about, plus flights back and forth from South America. The fact is no player will be able to play every minute of all eight games over 24 days. Tata Martino will have to rotate, and with rotation comes uncertainty as well as opportunity.
Fortunately for Atlanta, on paper their schedule is the easiest in MLS the rest of the way. Dallas are reeling, New England are talented but ship goals, Orlando are playing for pride, LA’s struggles are well documented, Union fans are booing their own head coach and Minnesota are improving but have fallen flat on the road all season. Dallas are the only opponent during these eight games that are currently above the playoff line.
None of that may matter. Results in MLS can be a coin flip, and now is not the time to learn that the hard way.
While 2017 has been a magical time to be a soccer fan in Atlanta, there is still plenty of unfinished business. United has 10 games to prove their pomp and circumstance is backed up by character and, ultimately, results. They have eight games to prove Mercedes-Benz Stadium is the fortress they’ve been waiting for.
They wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I think look the exciting thing for us is it’s in our destiny,” president Darren Eales said. “We’ve got the games at hand and the majority of them at home, so when our fans get behind us we’re hopeful that we can get on a roll. I think it’s like anything: if you can get the results, then I think that gets you going.”