By all accounts, Atlanta United had a fantastic first season. The Five Stripes finished with the fourth-most points in MLS, made the MLS Cup Playoffs, and set league attendance records in the process.
Individually, Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron made the MLS Best XI, while Almiron was named MLS Newcomer of the Year. And Martinez, despite being injured for a good portion of the year, finished fourth in the Golden Boot race thanks to an unheard-of 1.12 goals per 90 minutes scoring rate.
But as the team start their second season on Saturday against the Houston Dynamo at BBVA Stadium (3:30 pm ET | Univision, MLS Live; DAZN in Canada) they’ve added several new players and lost a few more. And they will have to cope without their record offseason signing, Ezequiel Barco, who will be out injured an estimated 4-6 weeks.
Amidst all the uncertainty, will Atlanta United be able to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump? MLSsoccer.com spoke to Martinez and Almiron to see what the two fast friends are feeling as the season kicks off. Martinez was clear about his high expectations.
“I want us to win the league this year,” he said through a translator. He said he knows it will be difficult, and not only because other teams have also brought on new talent.
“This season the rest of the league knows what to expect from Atlanta, so we have to be ready for that,” he said.
“I think we learned a lot,” Almiron said about the inaugural season. “We learned the league is very competitive and we just have to keep improving and then try to improve what we had last year.”
The South Americans say they are focused on achieving team rather than individual accolades.
“Last year, everyone was talking about the Golden Boot, but I’m not thinking about that,” said Martinez. “I’ll let others talk about that for me. My first goal is to stay healthy because last year I struggled with injuries.”
The Venezuelan knows what his teammate Barco is going through right now as he nurses a quad injury, having dealt with a similar injury last year, and lamented his new teammate having to miss out on the start of the campaign.
“It’s a big loss for us because he’s an important part of the team,” he said. “It’s unfortunate for him that he has to start the season like that.”
Added Almiron: “It’s an important loss, but Barco just has to stay strong mentally and he’ll recover and be better than ever. But the team just has to keep working hard and focus on what we need to do to improve and I think we’ll be OK because we have other talented players.”
Both players admit the team may not be playing their best soccer in the first match against the Dynamo, but they remain optimistic that Atlanta will improve as they go.
“All of our teammates are adapting really well,” said Almiron. “It’s a very united group, which I think is important for us to start the season.”