When you come out of the gates like Atlanta United did in 2017, people tend to take notice. It was a debut unlike any in MLS history as Atlanta United attacked, attacked and attacked some more en route to one of the most entertaining seasons in MLS history.
Now, entering Year Two, the mentality remains the same. The pressure, though, has reached an even higher level for a club widely viewed as a contender before they even kicked a ball.
“We expect to be more than just a playoff team,” defender Michael Parkhurst told SBI. “I think last year that was the main goal: make the playoffs and then see what we can do from there. This year it’s, ‘Okay, let’s put ourselves in the best position possible all year round to do the most damage in the playoffs’.
“When ownership and the front office has the ambition that this club has, and spend the money that it has, it’s a win-now mentality and I think we all expect to win now. We understand that even though it’s our second year there’s a lot of pressure on us. The players, we understand that and we’re soaking it in. “
After spending and spending to field one of the most dynamic teams in league history in the club’s debut campaign, Atlanta United splashed the cash a bit more this offseason. In comes highly-regarded Ezequiel Barco, one of the most sought-after prospects in world soccer, as well as Darlington Nagbe, a player with U.S. Men’s National Team experience and a style that seems to mesh with Atlanta United’s seamlessly.
Perhaps the biggest victories, though, came not from who came in but who didn’t go out. Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron stayed despite plenty of suitors. The core of Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Brad Guzan, Hector Villalba and Greg Garza remains in place.
In theory, Atlanta United should once again contend for a playoff spot after fighting their way to last year’s postseason. But sophomore years always tend to be difficult and the club knows that this season will be one that will look and feel very different than the highly-successful debut campaign.
“We understand that a lot of teams out there aren’t fond of us,” Parkhurst said. “We’re the media darlings after one year. Other players are either jealous of us, or don’t like it, so we’re going to have everyone’s best game, just like Toronto will. Teams will bring their A game against us, especially with the money that we spent.
“Just because we had a success year one and paid a lot of money for Barco doesn’t guarantee us more success this year,” he added. “Everybody’s getting better every year in MLS. Spending money doesn’t guarantee results.”
Here’s a closer look at Atlanta United:
2018 ATLANTA UNITED SEASON PREVIEW
2017 Finish: 4th in the Eastern Conference (15-9-10, 55 points)
Key Acquisitions: Ezequiel Barco, Darlington Nagbe, Jose Hernandez, Franco Escobar, Sal Zizzo
Key Losses: Yamil Asad, Carlos Carmona, Anton Walkes, Bobby Boswell, Tyrone Mears, Kenwyne Jones
Newcomer to Watch: Ezequiel Barco
When you’re the most expensive player in MLS history, all eyes will be on you. Such is life for 18-year-old Ezequiel Barco, who joins Atlanta United from Argentina’s Independiente on a record deal. Barco is widely regarded as one of the brightest prospects not just in Argentinian soccer, but in world soccer.
The midfielder is quick, direct and skilled on the ball, making him an ideal fit around Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba. It remains to be seen how Barco handles the pressure, but Atlanta’s push for him was a major statement for both the club and for MLS as a whole.
Pressure is On: Miguel Almiron
Heading into 2017, everyone knew Miguel Almrion would be a good piece for Atlanta United, but even the most optimistic follower probably didn’t expect the Paraguayan to look quite as strong as he did in his first MLS season. Almiron fired nine goals and 14 assists last season, proving himself as one of the league’s elite playmakers and the key piece in the Atlanta attack.
Now, moving on to Year Two, Almiron can’t afford to lose a step. He has more talent around him, sure, but teams will know what to expect when they face off with an Almiron-led attack. With major European clubs swirling, Almiron will need to put together another big season for both his own career and for his club’s success.
In 2017, Atlanta United unleashed one of the most dynamic attacks in league history. The team scored a whopping 70 goals, good for second in MLS, and they did it in style.
So how does Atlanta United follow that up? They did what any sensible club would do: they spent to make the attack even better.
It starts with Ezequiel Barco, who comes in for a reported fee of $15 million. That fee is nothing to sneeze at even in today’s market and, in MLS, it brings a whole new level of pressure onto an 18 year old’s shoulders.
The good news for Barco is that he has an excellent unit around him. Miguel Almiron rapidly became a star last season and an incredible 19 goals in just 17 MLS stars. Hector Villalba, meanwhile, flew wildly under the radar while amassing 13 goals and 11 assists. Barco will be tasked with manning the left wing in that unit as he looks to cut inside and provide yet another goalscoring threat within a dynamic, free-flowing attack.
“The talent is there. (Barco is) a really young kid,” defender Greg Garza told SBI. “You look at him and realize he’s only 18 years old. He still has a body to grow into. Hopefully, he can do a lot with this team and I know there’s quite a bit of pressure on him. I wish him the best and I hope he can bring what we expect of him.
“It’s difficult, because we have guys that were a shock within this league,” Garza added. “Miguel and Josef, I think they’ll be much more well-studied than they were last year, but hopefully they can build off some of the confidence they had last year and help this team do a lot more bigger and better things this year.”
With Barco’s addition stealing headlines, it’s easy to forget that Atlanta United also made a major splash to add Darlington Nagbe. The second-year club sent a potential total of $1.65 million in allocation money to the Portland Timbers to acquire the USMNT midfielder, making the move one of the biggest intra-league signings in MLS history.
In Nagbe, Atlanta adds a midfielder with a unique skillset. He’s talented on the ball, quick and is an expert in shuttling play from the defense to the attack.
“The funny thing is that he’s the kind of guy where if he wants to slow the game down, he can slow the game down,” Garza said. “If he wants to keep at that tempo, the high tempo, he can do that as well. The main thing for him, to be completely honest, is probably he’s one of the fastest first step guys that I’ve played with or seen play. His first two steps with the ball, he’s one of those guys that can get around you without the ball, while receiving the ball, and that first touch of his is pretty amazing as well.
“He’s one of those guys that can dictate the tempo of the play and dictate the tempo of the game and that’s a big plus for us. In that attack, we have so many guys that are a thousand miles an hour and sometimes we have to choose our times to take care of the game, and I think he’s the perfect guy for that.”
There are concerns, though. The defensive midfield role is chief among them, as the departure of Carlos Carmona thrusts veteran Jeff Larentowicz into the role. At 34, a lot will be asked of Larentowicz, who does have a capable defense behind him led by Gonzalez Pirez and Parkhurst. You can also add in Brad Guzan, who certainly changed Atlanta’s backline when he joined the team midsummer.
With the attacking upgrades, and a defense with a year under its belt in Tata Martino’s system, Atlanta United will be expected to improve eon its debut season, and it has the weapons to do just that.