Boehm: It took ages, but expansion learning curve caught up to Atlanta

Atlanta United’s debut season is now in the books, brought to a close well before most of us expected thanks to Columbus Crew SC’s rugged, resilient display in their Knockout Round duel at a jam-packed Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday.

Time and time again this year, the Five Stripes have made a mockery of MLS expansion conventional wisdom. Flashing ambition, savvy and spending power, they raced out of the gate on the field, in the stands and around their community. The crowds and hype grew and the victories stacked up as Year 1 progressed.

Coach Tata Martino sculpted a clear, compelling identity for his squad that thrilled fans and – at its best – destroyed opponents. As ESPN’s Taylor Twellman professed a few weeks ago, ATLUTD’s pressing system, executed by charismatic stars like Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, made them appointment viewing for many MLS observers.

When they became just the second expansion side of this century to clinch a postseason berth, following in the 2009 Seattle Sounders’ footsteps, it felt less like an achievement and more like a logical box to be checked on the way to bigger goals. So what happened?

When a phenomenon like Atlanta bursts into prominence, it can devour so much attention that opponents are left in the shade. No one had ever played an MLS Cup Playoffs match in front of 67,221 spectators – surely Columbus would be overwhelmed like the five teams who ventured into MBS to be put to the sword this fall, right?

But in this league, anyone with a plan, willing players and a little bit of luck can win on any given day. It’s a central tenet of MLS. No result is guaranteed, especially when it comes to the playoffs, where upsets and other unexpected wrinkles are so common over the years. And it’s those small margins that have so often bedeviled expansion teams over the decades.

After all, it was only a sole point in the standings that earned Atlanta the right to host Thursday’s game in the first place, their 55 points edging Crew SC’s 54 in the hunt for fourth place.

This Columbus team hosted MLS Cup just two years ago, and were unlucky not to win it. Their philosophical identity is every bit as clear and cultivated as Atlanta’s, Gregg Berhalter having instituted an expansive, ambitious tactical approach across every level of the club from the first team right down to their youngest academy sides. They’re not cannon fodder, no matter how exciting the Five Stripes’ story may be.

Most of MLS embraced big data quite some time ago; quantitative analysis and painstaking opposition scouting are standard operating procedure. So every single one of those pulse-raising Atlanta performances was an opportunity for the rest of the league to drill down into the nuts and bolts of Tata’s approach and find weaknesses to exploit: Those gaps in the defense when they pour numbers forward into the attack. The space to be had in front of their back four once the initial line of pressure is beaten. The frustration that flares when opponents force games to be played at a tempo not of their choosing.

Berhalter and Crew SC have their flaws, too, but exhaustive preparation is not one of them. Thursday’s visitors did what was necessary to keep the game close, showing admirable versatility in switching from bunkering to counterattacking to keepaway as circumstances dictated. It didn’t win the game for Columbus so much as give them a puncher’s chance, and once things advanced to a penalty-kick shootout, almost all of Atlanta’s built-in advantages were nullified by the Russian roulette of spot kicks.

That’s much like how the Seattle Sounders knocked off Toronto FC in last year’s MLS Cup final, and we’ll probably see similar gambits again in these playoffs. It helps to have an experienced team that’s been in such situations before, and that’s one area where Atlanta simply cannot overcome their expansion-team reality. For all the international quality and MLS know-how on their roster, the Five Stripes had literally never been in that position as a group.

Now they have, and the painful memories will surely drive them over the long offseason. Hopefully this first taste of true adversity fires their resolve and deepens their relationship with their legions of fans. Considering all Atlanta United achieved in their first lap around the MLS track, there’s no reason not to rank them among the top title contenders for 2018.

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