LOS ANGELES – Atlanta United made a tremendous splash in its inaugural campaign, scoring lots of goals, playing sizzling attacking soccer and thrilling huge home crowds to become just the third first-year club to reach the postseason in MLS history.
With head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino working alongside president Darren Eales, technical director Carlos Bocanegra and soccer operations VP Paul McDonough, the Five Stripes debuted with one of the best expansion seasons of all-time. They attacked with great pace and fluidity behind Paraguayan string-puller Miguel Almiron, Argentine winger Hector Villalba and midfielder Yamil Asad, and, when he was healthy, Venezuelan striker Josef Martinez.
For three months, from late July into late September – a span roughly coinciding with goalkeeper Brad Guzan's first games after arriving from England – Atlanta United looked like the best team in MLS, with just one loss in 14 games while hitting the net at a 2.7 goals-per-game clip.
As it turned out, they peaked a little too early. Their season ended in disappointment, with a five-game winless streak culminating in a loss on penalties to Columbus at the first playoff hurdle in front of more than 67,000 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The plan for year two is simple: Do it again, just better.
To do so, the Five Stripes have brought in two more attacking midfielders, Darlington Nagbe from the Portland Timbers for up to $1.65 million in allocation money and rising Argentine teen Ezequiel Barco from Independiente in an MLS-record reported $15 million transfer.
“We're trying to get better each year,” Almiron said through a translator at Saturday's MLS Media Roundtable in Universal City. “Those two players will make us better. They're very important. They're big players.”
Just 18 and pegged for big things internationally, Barco is one of the most highly anticipated of MLS's 2018 newcomers. He is most likely to fill in for Asad after his loan expired, with Nagbe also competing for the spot or a place in the middle of the field.
The Five Stripes hopes both can boost the team up a level.
“By bringing in these two players, we want to make a statement of wanting to achieve the goals we didn't achieve last season,” Martinez said. “We hope to score more goals. We hope to earn more respect, like the respect teams have for other teams.
“Our goal is the same as it was last year, to win MLS Cup.”
Atlanta United gave it a game try in 2017, scoring 70 goals – including six in one win and seven in another – and evolving into a decent defensive side, too, behind Guzan, Argentine center back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, and captain Michael Parkhurst.
The 23-year-old Almiron scored nine goals with 14 assists, was MLS Newcomer of the Year and an MVP finalist and was joined on the Best XI by Martinez, who scored 19 goals in 20 outings. Martino was runner-up for Coach of the Year, Julian Gressel won the top-rookie award and the club won for the year's best goal (by Villalba) and save (by Guzan). Martinez likely would have won the Golden Boot had he not missed 17 league starts with a hamstring injury that cost him nearly three months early in the season and another month in July and August. His strike rate over a full season would give him 38 goals.
“I need to improve by not getting the same injury as I did last season, because it took me away for almost half the season,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder what could have happened if I hadn't gotten injured. Nobody knows that for sure.”
Martinez said trophies are a must for a club that's supported as well as Atlanta United, which averaged 48,200 in attendance and drew nearly 72,000 to its regular-season finale against Toronto FC in their new stadium.
“We feel very proud that people are not only looking at Atlanta as a baseball or American football city, but see it as a soccer city,” he said. “We want to give the city a title, which is something they've not seen [since the Atlanta Braves won the 1995 World Series]. It won't be easy. We'll have to work hard.”