At fifty-four and having managed Paraguay, Newell’s Old Boys, Barcelona, and Argentina in the decade before coming to the US, it’s safe to say Tata Martino has been around the block a few times. His latest club, Atlanta United, did not exist before owner Arthur Blank ponied up $150 million in 2016 to be granted a Major League Soccer franchise. The club is currently crashing at Georgia Tech University’s Bobby Dodd Stadium while it plans and builds its own ground. Although AU dropped its home opener to NY Red Bull 1-2, it then spoiled namesake and fellow MLS debutante Minnesota United’s home opener in six-star fashion before returning home on the weekend to burn Chicago Fire for four goals. All told, that’s someone old, something new, something borrowed and a pair of other MLS clubs singing the blues. As honeymoons go, that’s not bad.
Of course, three matches is hardly predictive for any club’s future. Sometimes it takes decades to achieve greatness. Ask the club that called itself Newton Heath Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway for its first quarter-century. Even after switching tracks in 1902, it took Manchester United another fifty years or so to get where it was going. In Major League Soccer, DC United poured on the coal coming out of the station, winning three of the first four MLS Cups, losing the final the other year, then winning a fourth in the league’s eighth season. In the twelve years since, though, the capital United have been stuck on a siding.
You may have noticed there are getting to be quite a few Uniteds lately thanks to America’s attempts to dress the part of a legitimate football nation. Yet, clubs not named United have started out brightly in MLS, only to see local interest fade. Toronto FC were talk of the league in its debut season, intimate and noisy BMO Field envied by many clubs playing in cavernous NFL venues, upper decks tarped, atmosphere conducive to cramming for an important final exam. TFC’s problem was it could not win matches. It tried several approaches, including a short-lived partnership with Ajax. Finally, corporate owner Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment realized it had no idea how to build a football club, so brought in people who did. Having reached the MLS Cup in 2016, though falling to Seattle Sounders, fans are back in droves, cheering on a winner, less concerned their “soccer-specific” stadium is now shared with CFL club Toronto Argonauts.
Excepting New York and Los Angeles, America’s two major media markets, and Cascadia, the Pacific Northwest region with both a football and independently minded political culture reminiscent of Catalonia or the Basque region, MLS attendance tends to be driven by performance. The trend is not limited to soccer. Most American sporting franchises find fan loyalty is linked to winning and losing. What can I say? The US is a bandwagon society.
One advantage Atlanta United enjoys is owner Arthur Blank. The Home Depot founder also owns the NFL Atlanta Falcons, which, like Icarus, flew too close to the sun, staking out a 28-3 fourth quarter lead over the New England Patriots before the heat became too much in Super Bowl LI and the team crashed to earth. Blank and his wife are famous for dancing in the owner’s box whenever their Falcons score a touchdown. Whether the couple follow his new club as fervently, launching into a rumba or macarena whenever United score a goal, remains to be seen. The point here is a billionaire owner, any thoughts on Donald Trump aside, is human. He or she has emotions and can be just as concerned with winning as turning a profit, whereas a corporation’s sole interest is in improving shareholder value.
Blank is an owner who wants to win. It is why he’s brought in a vastly overqualified manager to build his MLS team from the ground up. He has placed people with strong football backgrounds in other key positions, as well. Darren Eales, an Englishman, played collegiately and professionally in the United States, then earned his Cambridge Blue in 1998 and became Tottenham Hotspur’s Director of Football Administration. He is club president. Former USMNT defender Carlos Bocanegra is Technical Director, his mission almost certainly to provide the players Martino requires rather than the Argentine managing the talent the American signs. The strong Latin American presence in the squad, coupled with several American internationals, suggests Bocanegra and Martino can work well together. With a chairman interested in winning, willing to underwrite a first-class operation in order to reach that goal, and trust in experienced professionals, Atlanta United has a chance to become an instant power in MLS.
The competition won’t always be as willing to lay down as Minnesota and Chicago. The Fire, despite having recruited a trio of proven winners in the off-season, were abysmal at the back. Having played with ten men for all but the first eleven minutes, any educated viewer would expect to see a compacted defense clogging the box, two lines of four, making it difficult for Atlanta to penetrate. Instead, there was just the one line to split for Atlanta’s third goal, and Chicago’s defenders were so far apart on the second and fourth Christmas cards sent now would surely arrive late. Twice AU forward Josef Martinez walked in on the Fire goal as if it were a twenty-four hour Walmart. I could go on but let’s just say Atlanta United had its selection from mixed metaphors for how easy it was to break down the Fire defense.
Other clubs will put up more resistance. It will be a shock should United still be atop the table deep into the season. Martino’s squad hasn’t had the time to bond that Red Bull, Toronto, and Patrick Vieira’s Man City mini-me, NYCFC have.
There is no reason to doubt Atlanta can be a playoff side, however. In the summer, goalkeeper Brad Guzan will arrive from Middlesbrough, perhaps to martial AU’s defense in the same manner USMNT teammate Tim Howard did last season at Colorado Rapids after calling time on his Everton career. Meanwhile, Americans Greg Garza, Michael Parkhurst, Jeff Larentowicz, and Zach Lloyd provide a solid veteran group with MLS experience to guide young sensations Héctor Villalba and Josef Martinez. Carlos Carmona, a thirty-year-old defender has come over from Serie A and Chris McCann, a twenty-nine-year-old Dubliner was signed from Wigan to add further experience. Early signs indicate Tata’s squad will gel nicely.
Further, Blank’s chequebook will likely live up to his name. Don’t be surprised if the club signs a noteworthy attacking player in the summer window, with former Stoke and Sunderland star Kenwyne Jones not fitting in and loaned out to Trinidadian club Central. It’s too early to be certain, yet there just might be a sporting revolution taking place south of the Mason-Dixon Line.