As the team’s roster was assembled piece by piece, there was a cautious optimism when it came to Atlanta United. Expansion teams had notoriously struggled to adapt in the past, yes, but Atlanta United had put together a team unlike any we’d seen before.
On Wednesday, that cautious optimism officially became full blown elation as Atlanta United sealed a playoff berth. The thing is, though, Atlanta is far from finished.
With yet another lopsided home win, Atlanta United locked up their postseason spot on Wednesday via a 3-0 drubbing of the Philadelphia Union. The club is the fourth expansion team in league history to make the playoffs in a debut season, joining the 1998 Chicago Fire, the 1998 Miami Fusion, and, most recently, the 2009 Seattle Sounders.
“I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t one of the expectations for the season,” said head coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, “because we have really good players and I knew the type of players that we were going to be bringing in. In Bradenton, we started to work together towards that goal. I don’t think it’s fair to use the excuse, ‘Only a few teams have made the playoffs as an expansion team.’ We knew the kind-of players we were bringing in.”
“We’re in the playoffs,” said defender Jeff Larentowicz. “No, I don’t know. We’ve been focusing on it all year. It’s been our goal. We’ve had ups and downs but I think that this stretch we really just pushed and got ourselves over the edge. It’s a huge accomplishment for us.”
It wasn’t just the fact that the club sealed the spot that was impressive, but also how they did it. Given a ridiculous stretch of games that included six matches in 17 days, Atlanta United’s season basically came down to a two-week span. Win and they were in. Lose and it was going to get tough.
Now, they were fortunate to have many of those games at home, but Atlanta United was certainly vicious within the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. In the six home matches, Atlanta United outscored opponents by a total scoreline of 22-3 with a variety of contributors popping up throughout.
On Wednesday, it was Julian Gressel, who was playing in a playmaker role due to the absence of Miguel Almiron. Gressel provided a goal and an assist in the 3-0 drubbing, showing once again how important the first-year player is to the first-year team.
“He totally deserves (the MLS Rookie of the Year award),” Martino said of the German-born midfielder. “I thought he played an excellent game tonight. Not just by looking at what he did on the field, but you have to understand what we ask of him as a coaching staff. Today, he did everything exactly how we asked him. I think looking at all of the players who are in their first season of the MLS that he definitely deserves the award.”
“We never really saw ourselves as a team like ‘Let’s just see where it goes.’ From the first day on, we wanted to be in the playoffs,” Gressel added. “I think that shows the determination and togetherness that we have all towards that one goal that came true. We’ll see where we can go from here, maybe talking a little more records for expansion teams in the near future.”
There are certainly more records to be broken. Josef Martinez could make a push for the Golden Boot in the coming weeks as he joins Gressel in pursuit of individual honors. There are certainly some home goalscoring records still in play for a team that is seemingly unstoppable in Atlanta.
But the main goal? That’s to finish in second place and secure a bye to start the postseason. Sure, third or fourth would be fine, as the club would lock up a home match in the wild card round. However, the goal is to avoid it altogether.
After Wednesday’s win, Atlanta sits three points behind NYCFC with a game in hand. The goal differential is massively in the newcomers’ favor, meaning Atlanta controls its own destiny with just four matches remaining.
“We’re going to try and go for that second spot,” Martino said. “Now, that we’re third, we’re in a position to reach another one of those goals, to be third or fourth and have a home game in the first round. But now that we’re there we’re going to try and go for that second spot. With New York City winning tonight, they’re ahead but we have a game in hand.”
According to defender Greg Garza, the team will hope to get both points and rest in the coming weeks. The club’s push for second may rely a bit on depth, especially without Almiron in the lineup.
Regardless of what happens in the coming weeks, though, Atlanta has earned a ticket to the playoffs and, from there, anything can happen.
“Making the playoffs is really important,” Martinez said. “Winning is important. I think the team played really well tonight at home. Now, we have accomplished one of the goals that we set this season but we have to keep working hard because there is more to come.”
“I don’t know (if we can win MLS Cup),” he added. “If I knew, I would tell you. In soccer, you never know, but we know we have to keep working hard. If we make the final, that would be great, but at the moment, we have to take it game by game.”