Feb 10, 2018; Nashville, TN, USA; Members of Terminus Legion with the Atlanta United team parade outside First Tennessee Park before the friendly against the Nashville SC. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
In its first Major League Soccer season, Atlanta United FC burst onto the scene at 100 mph with a high-powered offense orchestrated by Gerardo “Tata” Martino.
Fans poured into Bobby Dodd Stadium at Georgia Tech during the first half of the season, and even more showed up when the Five Stripes moved into Arthur Blank’s new digs at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta United shattered attendance records and showed the country that the South had something to say when it came to pro soccer.
But when the playoffs rolled around, the Five Stripes ran out of gas. At home, Atlanta United played out a 0-0 tie with the Columbus Crew before falling 3-1 in penalties.
In the offseason, all Atlanta did was make its offense even better. With a top line led by Hector Villalba, Miguel Almirón, Josef Martínez and newcomers Ezequiel Barco and Darlington Nagbe, expect the Five Stripes to score lots and lots and lots of goals this year.
With a defense anchored by Brad Guzan, Leandro González Pírez and Michael Parkhurst, they should stop a few too.
Without a doubt, the Five Stripes expect to contend for trophies in 2018.
Early road trip: Atlanta opens season at Houston
When: March 3, 3:30 p.m.
Where: BBVA Compass Stadium
Broadcast: TV – Univsion; RADIO – 92.9 FM (WZGC)
Live stream: MLS Live
The buzz: This was supposed to be the regular season MLS debut for Ezequiel Barco, the 18-year-old $15 million man from Argentina, but the club announced Wednesday that he will miss four to six weeks with a right quad strain he suffered in training. Now all eyes will be on who will fill in for him. Martino may switch Tito Villalba to the left side and plug in Julian Gressell or Brandon Vazquez on the right side. Fans are clamoring to see 17-year-old homegrown Andrew Carleton, and Martino may use him too in Barco’s absence.
The Dynamo made a run to the conference finals last season. They lost Erick “Cubo” Torres, but added several players in the offseason. They won’t be an easy out. This game may also feature a clash of similar colors, as Atlanta is expected to wear their new “King Peach” kit for away games and Houston typically rolls with its creamsicle orange kit at home. If your television is a bit fuzzy, this may be a confusing watch.
Other key matches
March 11 vs. D.C. United – The Black-and-Red weren’t good last year, but for whatever reason, Ben Olsen’s side had Atlanta United’s number last season. D.C. United won just nine games, but three of those came against Atlanta. This is the home opener for the Five Stripes and they’ll want to make a good impression on the home crowd. Oh, and it’s also Yamil Asad’s return to Atlanta.
June 24 vs. Portland – A national TV game on Fox features Darlington Nagbe facing the team he spent the first seven years of his career with. Portland has several new faces and this could make for an interesting game.
Aug. 24 at Orlando – With the help of rowdy fans, Villalba’s foot and a billboard, these two sides began an intense rivalry last season. This will be their third and final meeting in 2018.
Oct. 28 at Toronto – The two top offenses from 2017 close the regular season out in 2018. This game will feature several stars and could have a big say in playoff seedings.
Quotes & Notes
- Jon Gallagher, Atlanta United’s first round pick in the MLS SuperDraft, may not be ready to go for the season opener. It’s unlikely that he would’ve seen significant minutes in the game anyway, but Martino said Saturday that the 21-year-old “turned his ankle” and it was “swollen.” Gallagher had a decent chance to score in Saturday’s preseason game via a feed from Andrew Carleton, but the shot was saved by Charleston’s keeper.
- Last week, Atlanta signed its final SuperDraft pick, Oliver Shannon. He spent more than a decade in Everton’s academy and then played at Clemson University. A native of Liverpool, England, he had 13 goals and 17 assists in his collegiate career for the Tigers. “Since joining our team for preseason, Ollie has proven to be a good fit for our style of play and he’s earned his place on our roster,” Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra said. “He’s a player we scouted in-depth for a long time and quickly learned that his physical makeup and player profile would fit in well with our club philosophy.”
- ATL 2, the Five Stripes’ new USL affiliate that will play this season in nearby Gwinnett County, announced three signing last week in goalkeeper Paul Christensen, defender Andrew Kendall-Moullin and midfielder Laurent Kissiedou. Each have seen significant action in the USL side’s preseason so far. Christensen was the No. 70 overall SuperDraft pick this year out of Portland University. Kendall Moullin played last season with San Antonio FC and Kissiedou, a 19-year-old, is a product of Atlanta United’s academy.
- Talking to Goal.com, Darlington Nagbe said the door for him to go to Atlanta didn’t open until Caleb Porter left the team. “I think I’d still be (in Portland) if (Porter) was there,” Nagbe told Goal. “It was a good relationship between player and coach. I was comfortable with Caleb and once he left I thought it was good for me to make a chance and experience a new environment. Not just for me, but for my family.”
- Talking to Sports Illustrated about the growing popularity of MLS in South and Central America, Miguel Almiron said, “Latin players see the league in a different light now, due to the competitive environment–that’s why they are coming. I also think the league’s infrastructure – the stadiums, pitches – all of this combines for an attractive package for South American players.”
Biggest offseason moves
- The move that caught the most headlines was the addition of Ezequiel Barco. Bocanegra said they had been chasing the Argentinian playmaker since last summer and several members of the team’s brass flew down to South America to see him. He should start on the left wing and has a chance to have a foot in many goals this season.
- Yamil Asad was arguably one of the best midfielders in MLS last year, tallying seven goals and 13 assists. He showed his versatility too, playing on the wing, centrally, up top and back on defense. Negotiations between Atlanta United and his team fell apart, so the 23-year-old was sent to D.C. United for some TAM and GAM.
- Atlanta United sent more than $1 million in allocation money for the services of Darlington Nagbe. He’ll start and get to show his talents off in a box-to-box role. Some of that was on display in the Five Stripes first preseason game against Nashville, where he nearly carried the ball the length of the field before setting up a goal for Brandon Vasquez.
- Franco Escobar comes from Martino’s former club, Newell Old Boys in Argentina. He should start, but will face competition from free agent signing Sal Zizzo at right back.
- Atlanta didn’t anticipate losing Carlos Carmona, but the defensive midfielder was transferred to Colo Colo, a club in his native country of Chile. It was reported that Carmona wished to be with his pregnant wife, who couldn’t travel by air. Carmona did a lot of important and dirty work in the defensive midfield last season, and his spot will likely be filled by a rotation of players.
Forwards – Jon Gallagher, 21; Josef Martinez, 24; Brandon Vazquez, 19; Hector “Tito” Villalba, 23; Romario Williams, 23
Midfielders – Miguel Almiron, 24; Ezequiel Barco, 18; Andrew Carleton, 17; Chris Goslin, 17; Julian Gressel, 24; Kevin Kratz, 31; Jeff Larentowicz, 34; Chris McCann, 30; Darlington Nagbe, 27; Oliver Shannon, 22; Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu, 23
Defenders – Mikey Ambrose, 24; Franco Escobar, 22; Greg Garza, 26; Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, 25; Jose Hernandez, 20; Michael Parkhurst, 34; Miles Robinson, 20; Sal Zizzo, 30
Goalkeepers – Brad Guzan, 33; Mitch Hildebrandt, 29; Alec Kann, 27