Ben Olsen and Tata Martino.
Placed side by side, the names suggest a contrast to many MLS observers, a tableau of the league’s past and future in five words.
One is a longtime stalwart for his club on the field who moved straight into the coaching ranks, spending the past two decades keeping a proud club together amid lean times at a decaying stadium. The other, a managerial superstar, a World Cup quarterfinalist with a globe-trotting resume who helmed some of the world’s most famous teams, guiding Leo Messi and other megastars, before presiding over perhaps the most ambitious and expensive project in MLS history.
Painting with broad brush strokes can be dangerously misleading, of course. And so it is here – not only because framing the comparison this way is quite unfair to Olsen, himself a World Cup veteran and one of the savviest, most relentless competitors MLS has ever seen, but because it leaves out the facts of the matter between D.C. United and Atlanta United, who face off Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (3 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes, WatchESPN; MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada).
You’re probably all too familiar with the abundance of Atlanta hype over the past year or so. Towering ambition! Massive investment! Premium South American talent! Attacking soccer! Billion-dollar retractable-roof pleasuredome hosting home crowds of 70,000-plus!
Meanwhile D.C. have had to ball on a budget during the interminable wait for a new stadium, forcing Olsen and general manager Dave Kasper to be the “Iron Chefs” of MLS, concocting a roster that can compete against wealthier and more illustrious competitors, often with an attritional style of play.
So then how did the league’s original United so easily fold up the flashy newcomers and tuck them into their proverbial back pocket last year, to the tune of three wins out of three meetings, with six goals scored and just two allowed?
It’s a curious situation. Atlanta constructed one of the most incredible inaugural campaigns any expansion side in any sport has ever experienced, and they did so while D.C. languished far beneath them in the Eastern Conference basement during a season of struggle. A whopping 23 points and six places in the standings separated the two clubs in 2017.
But as D.C. supporters have happily and repeatedly reminded their ATL counterparts, three of the Black-and-Red’s nine victories came at the expense of the Five Stripes. The first, a 3-1 win at Bobby Dodd Stadium on April 30 that included an Atlanta own goal, some standing-on-his-head goalkeeping from Bill Hamid and three-quarters of ball possession for the home side, could have been written off as an outlier. But then D.C. did it again in June, and yet again in August, two home wins earned by a cellar-dweller against a team in the thick of the playoff race.
“We made many mistakes tonight, especially individual marking mistakes and against D.C., it’s obvious that those mistakes have cost us in both games,” said Martino after the June loss. “We dominated possession again, but D.C. is able to take advantage of the errors.”
By setting up his team to soak up pressure and lash out on the break, Olsen exploited the chief drawback of Martino’s enthusiastic attacking philosophy. And by not bothering with any great commitment to possession play or building out of the back, he largely nullified Atlanta’s sharp pressing game.
Thus ATL UTD’s kryptonite was revealed to the entire league, which surely factored into the gameplan that Gregg Berhalter hatched to help Columbus Crew SC knock off the Five Stripes in the Knockout Round of the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs, ending the Southerners’ season sooner than most expected.
On Sunday the two Uniteds meet again, this time for Atlanta’s 2018 home opener, where a capacity crowd is forecast.
In some respects the tables have turned a bit. Now the onus is on Atlanta to demonstrate that last year was more than just a feel-good story, while D.C. have shouldered greater expectations with several prominent upgrades to their attack – headlined by ex-ATL winger Yamil Asad – and a greater commitment to proactive play as they prepare to move into their long-awaited new home, Audi Field, this summer.
We’ll leave to others the premature talk of a “rivalry” between these two teams. But there’s no mistaking the compelling contrast between their leaders in the technical area, who will face off again with plenty to prove.