When Atlanta United joined the MLS in the 2017 season, no one could have expected that they would experience the kind of unprecedented success that they have in their first two campaigns in the United States’ top professional soccer league. United’s success has been immediate, and their style of play is enticing and exotic for American viewers hungry for high level soccer. So how did they get here?
United’s path to becoming one of the top performing teams in the MLS has been a wild dream come true for those within the organization, but it is not by accident. Atlanta’s blueprint to not only relevance but a potential dynasty, is one that other US clubs should be desperately trying to emulate.
It all starts with the coach. When owner Arthur Blank began his search for Atlanta United’s Head Coach in their inaugural MLS campaign, he was looking for one thing: an experienced soccer mind. Mission Accomplished. In Gerardo Martino, Atlanta received a bevy of experience (Martino’s previous coaching stints include FC Barcelona, and the Argentine National Team) and a clear philosophical identity. Rather than emphasizing athletic prowess or searching for elite, but aging, global stars, Martino built his team with young exciting talents, willing to play their role.
In his first moves as manager, Martino brought in the explosive duo of Miguel Almirón and Josef Martinez. The Venezuelan Martinez, has turned into the most dynamic goal scorer the MLS has ever seen. Meanwhile, in Almirón’s first two MLS seasons he’s garnered Rookie of the Year honors, and a staggering 45 goals in 51 games with Atlanta. Neither player was a known commodity before their time in Atlanta. Now, both players are surely to be hot commodities as the MLS season wraps up on Saturday (Almiron is rumored to be a New Castle United target this offseason). With Martinez’s unique composure to finish in front of goal, and Almiron’s combination of athleticism and vision, Atlanta’s dynamic duo has lead the way to this year’s MLS Championship.
But, Almiron and Martinez were not the only players that Martino targeted as he began to assemble a championship level squad in Atlanta. In Portland Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe, Martino saw a player with uncanny vision, patience, and international experience. Nagbe cost Martino and Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank a hefty price (Portland garnered the largest inter-MLS transfer fee in league history in exchange for their veteran midfielder), but despite some injuries, has been well worth it. Martino identified a player that controls the pace of the game and plays with a possession first mindset rarely found in the MLS.
Together, Atlanta’s three high profile offensive threats have given them a chance to accomplish the highly improbable: win a championship in their second season as an expansion franchise. But Atlanta hasn’t just laid a blueprint for success on the field, but a recipe for building a massive fan base and culture, off of it.
In just two seasons, Atlanta United have quickly established themselves as the most popular team in the MLS, a feat that has never been accomplished by another expansion franchise in any other American sports league. United shattered the MLS regular season attendance record with an astounding 72,035 tickets sold for their season debut this past March. Put into a global perspective, Manchester United is the only English Premier League club with a higher average attendance rate than Atlanta’s attendance numbers in their season debut. But Atlanta’s success is less about attendance rates and financial accomplishments, and more about building a soccer culture in a city that has embraced the game with open arms.
Lead by high profile fans like OutKast frontman Big Boi, United have reinvigorated a sports town with a football team on the ropes, an irrelevant basketball team, and a hockey team in Winnipeg. Call it the right place at the right time, if you want, I call it brilliance.
Now, on the eve of the MLS Cup Final, in just their second campaign, Atlanta United have built a blueprint for how to be a successful professional soccer team, here in the United States. After hiring an experienced international coach, scouting youthful and exciting talent that fits the coach’s style of play, and immediately exciting the local soccer community with immediate results, Atlanta has become the most popular team in the MLS. On Saturday, we will find out if they are the best team, as well.