Boehm: How MLS All-Star Game is a signpost for new-look Atletico Madrid

ORLANDO, Fla. – On first glance, Atletico Madrid don’t look all that different.

Their renowned intensity, organization and collective purpose was evident as hard-charging manager Diego “Cholo” Simeone led his squad through a businesslike training session at Exploria Stadium on Tuesday morning, their final workout before Wednesday’s meeting with the MLS All-Stars (8 pm ET | FS1, TUDN, TSN, TVAS).

El Cholo drilled his men with particular briskness in the areas of pressing, defensive organization and tempo of play, spending extra time with his back line, an almost entirely new group this season thanks to departures like Lucas Hernandez (sold to Bayern Munich for a cool $89 million) and club legend Diego Godin. True to reputation, he did not hesitate to dress down players who didn’t meet his standards, and kept things moving on schedule and in rhythm.

“I think many people all over the world know the coach’s philosophy and his tactics,” winger Vitolo told MLSsoccer.com afterwards. “We’re a fierce team, we’re a fighting team and that’s what the fans will see on Wednesday.”

But this is not quite the same Atleti that’s punched well above its weight for the better part of a decade under Simeone, with a ruggedly defensive and tenaciously committed mindset.

There was a $140 million player – newly-acquired Portuguese winger wunderkind Joao Felix, by far the most expensive signing in the club’s history – roaming Orlando City SC’s home pitch, the biggest-ticket item of a $270-million summer spending spree. That is a dramatically different look from the recent past, when Simeone had to whip together a collective identity around hard work, organization and fighting spirit because there quite simply wasn’t enough money for a more glamorous approach.

“Atletico is synonymous with workers,” assistant coach and former goalkeeper German Burgos once said, “bricklayers, taxi drivers, churros sellers.”

Diego Simeone | Action Images

That it worked as well as it did even as standout players were sold off to pay bills, culminating in an against-the-odds La Liga championship over giants Real Madrid and FC Barcelona in 2014, is one of the great success stories of 21st-century world soccer. Two UEFA Europa League championships and two trips to the Champions League final showed Atleti's power in international competition. Along the way, Simeone became a true coaching rock star, enshrining his style as a philosophy unto its own: cholismo.

“This is not just a league title,” El Cholo, who earlier this year signed a contract extension through 2022, said at the time. “What this triumph transmits is much more important than that: If you believe and if you work, you can do it.”

But like it or not, those achievements have provoked an evolution. A club that suffered relegation at the turn of the century and flirted with bankruptcy amid years of financial mismanagement is now on firmer ground, and moved into a posh, modern new home, Estadio Metropolitano, two years ago. And Atleti’s man in black has decided that a “new project” is necessary to keep Los Rojiblancos moving forward, and upwards.

There’s that spending spree. An ambitious preseason tour of more than 13,000 flight miles from Madrid to Dallas to New Jersey to Orlando to Mexico, highlighted by their All-Star cameo. And, perhaps, a more open, attack-minded way of playing – witness last week’s stunning 7-3 drubbing of local rivals Real Madrid.

Traditionally the blue-collar club of Spain’s capital city, Los Colchoneros (“The Mattress Men”) long fashioned their identity in direct contrast to Real. But now they look to be trying out some of the same “superclub” business moves that their hated crosstown counterparts have used to build a global fanbase and hefty budget.

“We’re definitely one of the biggest clubs in Europe at this point,” declared Vitolo on Tuesday, “maybe even from 10 years ago. Every year we’ve been getting higher and higher and better in quality, and it’s going to keep going that way.”

The challenge now for Simeone and his squad: To smoothly incorporate those new resources and ambitions without losing that proud, powerful unity and resilience.

“The identity is the same,” said midfielder Marcos Llorente, who defected from Real to join Atleti last month. “Every year we’ve gotten better, we’ve achieved great things. Despite big names coming in and spending more money, the identity has remained.”

This sort of shift carries hazards: Consider the struggles in recent seasons of MLS teams like the New York Red Bulls, Houston Dynamo and even Atlanta United who’ve sought to add more tactical and stylistic facets to their established personalities. But Madrid’s “other club” sounds ready to step up to a bigger and brighter spotlight in the months and years ahead, starting with the All-Star Game.

“I believe we’ve shown that for several years now, that it’s a great club, achieving very good things and growing, bringing in big-name players,” said Llorente when asked if Atleti can now be considered a superclub. “If we don’t lose our identity and the essence of the team stays the same, we’ll keep showing it in the future.”

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