Atlanta United are four points clear atop the overall MLS table and AS YOU MAY HAVE HEARD, can take a decisive step towards claiming the Supporters’ Shield with a positive road result against the New York Red Bulls on Sunday.
They are probably going to win the regular-season league title, and they’ll be favored, if perhaps not quite overwhelmingly, to continue on and win MLS Cup. Regardless of that, or what happens on Sunday, the Five Stripes already sit on 63 points and are building a resume worthy of comparison to MLS’s greats.
With four games to go on ATL’s slate, they have a very good chance to break the MLS record for most points in a regular season, 69, which was set by Toronto FC barely a year ago. They are averaging 2.1 points per game, and given their upcoming opponents and freewheeling attack, also have a solid prospect of beating the 1998 LA Galaxy’s all-time best mark for highest PPG, 2.13.
Standing as they do on 65 goals scored (at an average of 2.17 goals per game) and a goal differential of plus-29, there's also a chance they move close to the league's best-ever goal differential, the eye-watering plus-41 logged by the ‘98 Galaxy, which Toronto got closest to last year with plus-37. That Octavio Zambrano-coached Galaxy side also hold the most-goals-scored record with 85, which I think – I think – is safe for now. Last year TFC also made a good run at that mark, finishing with 74 goals, tied for second in MLS annals with '98 D.C. United.
Ahhh, TFC. Remember them?
They were a force of nature in 2017. You can see all the historical milestones they smashed, equaled or approached here as they won the Shield, Canadian Championship and MLS Cup treble. They followed up with a highly impressive run to the Concacaf Champions League final, where they were denied another iconic feat by an agonizing penalty-kick shootout loss to Chivas Guadalajara.
Alas, the news, thought and evolutionary cycles move faster than ever in MLS and it seems the Reds’ incredible campaign is already fading into the mists of time. That’s due largely to their inability to maintain anything close to that lofty level for most of this year, of course. They’re 8-15-6 in the league at present, stuck in ninth place in the East and unlikely to even qualify for the postseason, clearly weathered and worn by the heavy toll of the lead-dog role.
Sleek, shiny and still carrying that new-club smell, Atlanta are the new pacesetters. Could they be the new GOAT, lapping the legacy of that mighty TFC squad before the etching has even cooled on all their trophy inscriptions?
ATLUTD’s trajectory might just justify that. Theirs is the most expensively-assembled roster in league history, and they’re led by the biggest name in the league’s coaching ranks, and their way of playing, when it works, ranks right up there among the most unstoppable forces MLS has seen.
Here’s what they haven’t done to date: Win in "win-or-else" situations.
The Five Stripes’ numbers in league play are daunting. Take a look at knockout competitions, and it’s a different picture entirely. By my count, Tata Martino’s side have played five such games in their brief existence: Four U.S. Open Cup games and their sole Audi MLS Cup Playoffs appearance.
- ATLUTD edged USL side Charleston Battery 3-2 in their U.S. Open Cup debut, a 2017 fourth-round game that they trailed 2-1 at halftime
- They advanced to the Round of 16, where they were upset by the NASL's Miami FC 3-2, Kwadwo Poku’s injury-time winner deciding an end-to-end classic on a moist South Florida night
- As their fans remember all too well, Columbus Crew SC walked into Mercedes-Benz Stadium and held them scoreless over 120 minutes before outlasting them in a PK shootout in the Knockout Round of last year’s playoffs
- They handled Charleston much more straightforwardly in this year’s Open Cup, a 3-0 fourth-round win, but…
- Were then stunned 1-0 at home by the Chicago Fire in front of more than 41,000 fans – the biggest crowd in tournament history – in the Round of 16.
If we want to get technical and consider that gut-punch postseason loss to Crew SC the draw that it statistically is, that’s a mark of 2-2-1, 8 goals scored and 6 against for a goal differential of plus-2. Not quite as awe-inspiring, is it?
Yes, the sample size is small, and considerations should be made for the inherently unstable nature of knockout tournaments. But these are the situations that champions not only survive, but thrive in. This is the skill that sports exalts. It’s why the MLS Cup winners are considered the league champions rather than the Supporters’ Shield winners.
Have the Five Stripes merely been unlucky? TFC suffered and died more than once in these situations before they finally summited the peak – can Atlanta really get there on only their second try?
We don’t know the answers to these questions yet, and they’ll have to be settled to some degree before ATL get crowned anything more than Kings of the South.
And if you needed another reason to watch on Sunday, there it is. Let's see how Tata & Co. handle themselves here. It could be the beginning of a new trajectory, or another caution on the road to that first trophy.