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A look back at a Soccer miracle: Atlanta United set the MLS standard

Eric Rossitch - Atlanta United

Atlanta United crashed out of the MLS Playoffs at home to the Columbus Crew on Thursday night in heartbreaking fashion, but the loss is not what will be remembered by soccer fans.

As I left the colossal Mercedes-Benz Stadium last night, I took a long look back from the Gate 1 exit up at the skyline and the old Georgia Dome for the last time this year. There’s a little over 100 feet between the two stadiums, which the older will soon cease to exist in roughly three weeks.

It’s a great representation of the old and the new. The past and the present. Of the things yet to come.

I’ve written extensively this season not on the individual matches per se, but moreover the way the team was constructed and has developed over time. In less than a year, the club has gone from nothing to, well, the standard of MLS.

After Mercedes-Benz Stadium opened in September, there were a flurry of matches. Eight games in 23 days at one point, in which all of them were critical to the club to even make the playoffs. The backlog of matches forced head coach Tata Martino’s hand to not rotate players, and in the end, several players were out injured or not 100% fit. It was a grueling finish to the season in terms of player fatigue, but they never admitted it once. Not a single player said they were tired. As Jeff Larentowicz said earlier in the year, “there will be plenty of time to rest once the season is over.”

The blue-collar mentality from the players, coaches and executives was on display for all to see, all season. President Darren Eales never ignored the chance to speak to the press, always marketing the product proudly and loudly. The Englishman’s work at Atlanta United the past 18 months created a viral brand in MLS – a concept previously thought impossible. To truly appreciate the way Mr. Eales conducted himself this season, you have to consider the fact that at times it’s impossible to even get in contact with the President’s of Europe’s elite.

But, Eales would be the first to deflect credit and point towards the team he had behind him. Carlos Bocanegra, Paul McDonough, Ana Rodriguez, Elena Cizmaric, Chris Winkler, Chris Raimondi, Ryan Catanese, Brittany Arnold and countless others brought this team to life. From the folks who made roster decisions to the ones working in PR to the creative minds working in the social media department, everybody deserves an enormous amount of praise.

From a fan’s standpoint, it may be easy to overlook the work of the Front Office when things are going well. Only when times are tough does the FO come into question, but their work has been tremendous. They brought Atlanta United to life, and brought it to everybody. From the flag campaigns where they delivered flags – for free – was an absolutely genius marketing strategy. Walk around a university campus in Georgia and the leading number of sports shirts you see? It’s not the Falcons, it’s not the Braves, it’s Atlanta United. This all happened in less than a year, in the South, in a sports market dominated by college football.

Records

Atlanta smashed countless records this season ranging from expansion team performance records to all-time league attendance. The previous record set back in 1996 at the Rose Bowl was 69,255 for the first ever MLS match. Atlanta United broke the record with 70,425 spectators at their league match against rivals Orlando City. They would go on to almost mirror that against Toronto FC in the regular season finale.

Against the Columbus Crew on Thursday night, they again broke an attendance record, shattering the old 61,316 mark set in 2002 at Gillette Stadium. On a weekday night, 67,221 made their way through the notorious Atlanta traffic to see their team play.

The road ahead

In sports, while the past is important, it’s always about looking ahead. Tata Martino confirmed that in a few weeks time, they will begin preparing the roster for the 2018 campaign.

It’s a given that last night was the end of the line for some players in an Atlanta United shirt. The futures of Yamil Asad, Greg Garza, Tyrone Mears, Kenwyne Jones and Anton Walkes are anything but certain. Stars Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron will undoubtedly have international transfer attention, but for Darren Eales, selling them at this point is something they are not considering at the moment, per the AJC.

There are however many certainties, the technical staff is staying together, the Front Office staff is staying together, and likely a large portion of the players as well. There won’t be a need to rebuild and start from scratch, but now there is a base to build on. Eales, Bocanegra, McDonough and Martino got it right last year, now it will be fascinating to watch them work over the winter off-season.

Many players will come and many will go, it’s the way MLS works with its salary restrictions and other bureaucratic regulations. We can expect players from South America to continue to be brought in, particularly those who fit Tata Martino’s mould. It worked wonderfully this season for a team that predominately spoke Spanish, albeit very different accents.

And for fans, that’s the exciting bit of the season, as well as for journalists. Meeting the new faces who come in, full of hope and promise and playing for a head coach with a track record like Martino is, worth its weight in gold.

Final thoughts…

If you would have told me Atlanta United would make the playoffs this season back in January, I wouldn’t have been to surprised. If you would have told me the club would average over 48,000 fans a week and create a soccer fever in the South unparalleled to anything else in the country, I would have called you crazy.

Even with a ‘boring’ name like United, it sure did live up to the name. This team united the city of Atlanta. Which in today’s socio-political times, is something that transcends everything. 48,000 fans of dozens of ethnicities, races, nationalities and languages collided at either Bobby Dodd or Mercedes-Benz. All chanting the same message: “ATLANTA!” “UNITED!”

The Five Stripes didn’t just break ground in MLS, they tore up the floor. This is the new standard, the new expectation, the thing every other club wants to emulate. The trophies will come in time, but the foundation built this season, may kick-start a soccer revolution in America.

If soccer can flourish in the Bible Belt, there’s absolutely no excuse it cannot take off anywhere else.

I’m proud to have been a part of this opening season and covering 17 matches over the course of over six months. I cannot wait to see where this team goes from here.

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