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Atlanta United's first season mission: To boldly go where just one MLS debutante has gone before

Thursday 26th October 2017
Star Trek Discovery stars an underhanded captain. For its part, Atlanta United is open and direct. The MLS debutantes aim to advance to the MLS Cup.

It's fair to say we live in dishonourable times. To garner votes, Brexit campaigners made false assurances regarding NHS funding. To win the White House, Donald Trump made false claims about virtually everything. Harvey Weinstein apparently made false promises to every young actress in Hollywood to get himself some. Given art imitates life, it's little surprise the Star Trek franchise has dreamed up the remorseless, blackhearted, false Captain Lorca, who routinely breaks the Prime Directive.
It's also little surprise the lines between life and art are blurred. Obviously, there's Harvey Weinstein but sport is also an art form. Allegedly, it serves to further human virtue, honour, and ideals. More often, it doesn't.

At the moment, third-tier North American Soccer League is suing top flight Major League Soccer for violating US anti-trust law. NASL accuses MLS of using its marketing arm, SUM, to bid for the lower league's New York Cosmos in an evil plot to dissolve the flagship franchise, thereby driving its ambitious rival out of business. The documents revealed in the case ought to be a reality check for promotion/relegation bible thumpers. Major League Soccer will do anything to keep its iron grip on the keys to its kingdom.

With an NFL owner who has no illusions about how these things work, Atlanta United ponied up $150 million to gain entry to the realm. Once in the door, Arthur Blank hired former Barcelona and Argentina boss Gerardo Martino to cook up a team from scratch. Even notoriously potty-mouthed chef Gordon Ramsey can only have kind words after sampling football a la Tata.

The Argentine built his team around four technically gifted Latinos who score more often than Donald Trump tweets. Despite limited appearances due to injury, Venezuelan Josef Martinez's 19 goals put him in the running for the MLS Golden Boot. Only runaway Supporters' Shield winners, Toronto FC, scored more than United's 70 goals. Only TFC conceded fewer among Eastern Conference squads, as well. Defensively, Atlanta ranked fourth overall in MLS. All this from a squad that didn't exist less than a year ago.
Martino's work suggests two things. First, he is overqualified to be managing an MLS side. Second, Major League Soccer's proclaimed slow and steady approach to building an elite league might be the fear talking. The American game doesn't want for speed or strength. Tactically, Tata has demonstrated it lags far behind.

Surprisingly, support for Martino's side has rivaled Seattle Sounders crowds, both in size and enthusiasm, despite Georgia being a college gridiron hotbed. Before the two teams began sharing brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, United outdrew its owner's NFL Falcons, the 2017 Super Bowl runners-up, while playing early season matches at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium. To say the least, fans have already been given their money's worth.

Regardless, Martino is intent on achieving something no other MLS debutante has done since Chicago Fire in the league's third season: win an MLS Cup. Other than that first Fire squad, no new franchise has advanced in the playoffs.

In all likelihood, United's yellow brick road runs through Toronto. First, however, Martino's side must deal with the yellow and black clad Columbus Crew. The Ohioans won their first MLS Cup in 2008, then returned two seasons ago. The Crew have always been a difficult opponent, from Guillermo Barros Schelotto's time on through Kei Kamara to the current squad. The side has boasted capable coaching, too. Sigi Schmid delivered the club's only title. Robert Warzycha managed a perennial contender. Current boss Gregg Berhalter brought the club back to the MLS Cup.
As Schmid relied on Barros Schelotto, Berhalter too depends on an Argentine to drive his squad through its gears. Federico Higuain, brother to Gonzalo, is the number ten. Iraqi-American Justin Meram is dangerous on the flank and through the middle. As well, there is a new Kamara in town. Ola has knocked in 18 goals for Columbus on the year.

The one-off match between the two for the right to face either Toronto or Patrick Vieira's Manchester City Lite, otherwise known as NYCFC, promises to be a wide-open affair. Of course, Premier League fans will be forgiven for suspecting a false promise. They've heard that line before. Still, given AU were only kept off the scoresheet four times in 34 league matches, the hype might hold up this time. There could be 70,000+ at Mercedes-Benz Stadium eager to find out.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


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