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Atlanta United downplays ‘best team in MLS’ title

Apr 7, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Julian Gressel (24) celebrates after scoring a goal with midfielder Darlington Nagbe (6) against Los Angeles FC in the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Since losing 4-0 to the Houston Dynamo in week one of the Major League Soccer season, Atlanta United F.C. is unbeaten.

To go along with the Five Stripes 5-1-1 record, they are second in the league in goals scored with 17 and lead all of MLS in points per match with 2.29.

Several media outlets seem to think Atlanta United is the best team in MLS. Pro Soccer USAESPN, MLSsoccer.com and Soccer America all have the Five Stripes in the top spot of their power rankings.

But success and fame isn’t going to the team’s head. Three players were asked about the perhaps much-too-early designation at training on Tuesday and neither emphatically agreed with the assessment that Atlanta is the top team in MLS. 

“We’re up there. There’s a lot of good teams,” midfielder Darlington Nagbe said. “Even though we’ve been doing well, it’s still difficult to tell which team is the best team so far… Never any big heads here.”

Nagbe has been a large part of Atlanta United’s success this season, playing as a true box-to-box midfielder. He hasn’t scored yet – unfortunately his rocket of a shot versus NYCFC was wiped away – but he has played a crucial role in defending and attacking.

So far this season, Nagbe has completed 92.2 percent of his passes into the final third, which is the best rate among MLS players with 40 or more passes this season, per Opta. And Saturday in a 2-0 road win over the Los Angeles Galaxy, Nagbe intercepted two passes, blocked a shot and cleared out a miss.

“It was just what was open, what was given to me, so I tried to take advantage,” Nagbe said of his game against the Galaxy. “I still think we can be a little bit sharper at times. I think we create a lot of chances but sometimes we don’t put all of them away. Even though we score a lot of goals I think we have the potential to score more.”

Miguel Almirón, who scored his fourth goal of the season against Los Angeles, said “it’s a little early” to call Atlanta the league’s best team.

Although Atlanta has scored in bunches, the Paraguayan midfielder credited the defense with some of the team’s success. Over their last four games, Brad Guzan and the three-man back line has only allowed two goals.

“I think the whole team is playing well right now, and we’re not giving up a lot of goals, which is really important for us,” Almirón said through a translator. “As I said, we just have to keep improving, keep working hard as a team because it’s a really long season.”

It may have been Atlanta’s performance against the Los Angeles Galaxy that put them over the top for many MLS fans and media. The talk all week leading up to the game was about how Atlanta would stop the mighty Zlatan Ibrahimović.

Or it may have been that Atlanta is finally breaking down a reputation it built last year of not being very good on the road, where it finished 4-7-6 in 2017, compared to its 11-3-3 home record.

Even if some players disagree, it isn’t crazy to call Atlanta United the best team in MLS right now. They sit near the top of the table in the Eastern Conference, second only to NYCF, and the Five Stripes have proven they can defend and attack at a high level — at home in Mercedes-Benz Stadium or on the road in foreign territory.

“From our perspective, we’d like to think we’re one of the best. We play some good football and we feel like we have a really strong team this year…” defender Chris McCann said. We showed that we can go away from home, put on a good display and win, which was probably our biggest downfall last year, going on the road and not picking up enough points.”

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