America’s Major League Soccer has become notorious for being a retirement home for former superstars at the end of their career, with many clubs choosing money over identity but, one side has decided to do things differently.
Since 2008, American businessman Arthur Black, owner of NFL side Atlanta Falcons, has been working to set up a ‘soccer’ team in the city.
It took six years but, in 2014, MLS announced that they had awarded an expansion franchise to Black that would take to the field in 2017.
It had been a long, arduous process but, South Eastern USA finally had a new team, only the second in the area, alongside Orlando City, since the dissolving of Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion in 2001.
But, now the hard work began, preparing the team for MLS.
Unlike most businessmen who decide to buy a sports team, Black made it clear that his new franchise would be all about the fans, allowing them to name the club, choose the crest and colour scheme.
Supporters chose Atlanta United as the name, red, black and gold as the colour scheme and a circular badge with a large gold ‘A’, reminiscent of the city’s official seal. The crest also consists of five vertical black and red stripes, representing the five pillars of the club: unity, determination, community, excellence and innovation.
Giving supporters this choice has provided Atlanta United with an identity that fans and the city’s population can connect with, something that many MLS teams lack, making the club stand out for being different before they even stepped onto a football pitch.
The idea of a club for the fans and the city was further reinforced, when on the 10th of February this year, Atlanta United announced that the number 17 shirt would be retired, before it was ever worn, to mark the sides inaugural season in MLS.
All of this is part of the commitment by the club to ‘recognize that from the very beginning, the fans, the city, and the people define the spirit and essence of this club.’
Doug Robertson is a man who has experienced the growth of the club first hand.
As the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s sports reporter, Robertson has been there from minute one, praising the club for their interaction with both supporters and the media
“The team approached marketing with a grass-roots strategy.
“Those in the front office interacted consistently with the different supporter’s groups, or at soccer-related events around metro Atlanta. They often made themselves accessible to the media, which typically and almost exclusively meant me or the website dirtysouthsoccer.
“The team didn’t really ramp up its marketing budget with billboards and signage until a few weeks before the first game.”
With all of this in place and the 2017-18 MLS season approaching, Atlanta United needed a manager and a squad. While the league has seen many big players come and go, a big name manager was yet to take a job in MLS.
That was the case until September 27th, 2016.
Atlanta United hired former Barcelona and Argentine national team coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, with the club hopeful his fast paced, high pressure, attacking minded style, all expanded from a strong defensive structure, would bring immediate success but, he still needed the players to play his way.
Securing Martino’s services seemed somewhat of a coup for the club but, was it a stroke of luck?
Robertson revealed that it was Martino who took the unusual step of approaching the club.
“He wasn’t a target for Atlanta United. It turns out, as club president Darren Eales tells the story that Martino’s agent reached out to him. Martino said the idea of building a roster and club from nothing was appealing to him.”
As previously alluded to, MLS teams are renowned for paying big wages to superstars in the twilight of their career.
For those of you who are unaware, each club has a squad salary cap that must not exceed $3.485 million a year, excluding three designated players per squad. This essentially means that each team can have three players who can earn more than the rest.
For example, New York City FC have Andrea Pirlo, David Villa and Maximiliano Moralez as their designated players, all on big money and all the wrong side of 30.
However, Martino and Atlanta United decided against the ageing stars, bringing in three of South America’s most talented young players.
Diminutive and pacey winger Hector Villalba was signed as the club’s first designated player, moving from Argentine giants San Lorenzo. The 22-year-old had reportedly attracted interest from a number of big European clubs and represented somewhat of a coup for Atlanta.
23-year-old Venezuelan attacker Josef Martinez arrived from Italian club Torino to lead the line, with his pace, trickery and movement in the final third expected to cause MLS defences nightmares.
Miguel Almiron completed the trio, with the 23-year-old Paraguayan signed to run the midfield with his energy, range of passing and eye for goal.
MLS analyst Matthew Doyle believes that the signing of these young stars was an intelligent decision by the club, copying the blueprint for success used by MLS clubs in the past.
“They’ve definitely gone further in that direction than most,, ” says Doyle
“It seems they’re pretty smart to do so. Getting in-their-prime Latin American internationals was D.C. United’s blueprint from way back in the day and FC Dallas’s of the last four years. Atlanta’s brain trust was smart to copy those successful clubs.”
Robertson reaffirmed that the MLS new boys are not the first to take this route but, that they seem to have gone further than most.
“This isn’t a trail being blazed exclusively by Atlanta United. There are many examples of teams that have signed potential talents from Central and South America. Some have worked out. Some haven’t. It may be fairer to say that Atlanta United are among those who have gone all in in signing young talent from South America.”
Robertson thinks that former USA national team defender, Carlos Bocanegra, who is the clubs Technical director, was a big advocate for the signing of young South American stars, while Martino’s influence was also key.
“Carlos Bocanegra likes players from Argentina’s first division, for example, because the league is comparable to MLS in terms of physicality and style of play. Those players who have succeeded there will likely succeed in MLS.
“It is also fair to say that all of the South American players that the team has signed, other than Hector Villalba, who came before Martino, may not be at Atlanta if not for Tata.”
The old guard
Martino has also brought in experienced players while remaining within the salary cap. Journeyman defender Tyrone Mears, ex-Sunderland goal getter Kenwyne Jones and veteran Chilean midfielder Carlos Carmona all joined the club to form a strong and dependable spine.
Middlesbrough stopper Brad Guzan will move at the end of the Premier League season, giving the squad a good balance of youth and experience.
A host of players with vital MLS experience were also recruited, including the likes of Jeff Larentowicz and Michael Parkhurst, who have a combined total 539 games in America’s top division under their belt.
With all the pieces in place, Martino and his side were ready to take the Eastern Conference by storm, and that’s exactly what they’ve done, minus an early hiccup.
Atlanta suffered a 2-1 defeat to New York Red Bulls on the opening day of the season although, young Argentine attacker Yamil Afad did make history, scoring the club’s first ever goal.
In the two games since that loss, Atlanta have demolished fellow league newcomers Minnesota United 6-1 and one-time MLS Cup winners Chicago Fire 4-0.
With 11 goals scored in just three games so far, coach Martino’s 4-2-3-1 formation has allowed him to get the best out of his designated players, using his experienced campaigners as a solid and dependable foundation.
Martinez currently leads the MLS scoring chart with five goals, including a hat-trick against Minnesota, while Almiron has two goals and two assists, with Villalba also finding the back of the net on a single occasion.
While the early signs for Atlanta have been encouraging, Doyle is wary of Martino’s flaws as a coach that could hinder the side in the future but that a spot in the MLS play-offs should be the goal.
“Getting Tata was a good pick-up, and certainly invigorated the fan base. His team has been organised thus far, which is his calling card, but It’ll be interesting to see if he’s able to become more tactically flexible when he needs to be. He definitely failed in that regard in the opener.
“I’m not sure how well they’ll do. I think a playoff appearance is a reasonable goal, but not a guarantee.”
Robertson however, is confident that Atlanta will make the play-offs.
“Barring injury or other examples of bad luck, the team should make the playoffs.”
Following this impressive early season form, Atlanta currently top the Eastern Conference with a plus-eight goal difference, while the combination of exciting football and fan involvement has seen the attendance of 55,000 and 45,000 at their current ground, the Bobby Dodd Stadium, so far this season.
A new stadium is also just over the horizon, with Atlanta set to play their last eight games of the regular MLS season at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a purpose build, 40,000 seater arena with a fully retractable roof.
Embracing of the city’s tradition has also continued during the season.
After every home game, the man-of-the-match – voted for by the clubs fans on social media – drives an authentic golden spike, produced in the city’s track yards, into a railroad track at pitch side, just as the found fathers of Atlanta did all the way back in 1837.
The club’s official website states that the hammering of the golden spike signifies ‘the birth of a movement. The connection to the world. The uniting of cultures, generations and backgrounds. Let the Golden Spike be a reminder of our beginnings and our rise as a city and a club.’
Atlanta is club truly immersed in tradition, despite being in its infancy.
With all these traditions in place, top quality coach, an exciting, talented squad, a dedicated and passionate fan base backing the team, it appears that Atlanta United are on the right track for success.