Atlanta United's unity makes it more than just an expansion team
The term "Best Expansion Team Ever" can also be filed under "Damning with faint praise." It's intended as flattery, but it's really borne of low expectations.
In the first 21 years of Major League Soccer's existence, just three of the league's 13 expansion teams managed to reach the postseason, with just one after the turn of the millennium. In 2017, Atlanta United became the fourth, shattering attendance records and playing some eye-catching football along the way.
So when the question is posed to those connected with Atlanta United about whether the title fits the Five Stripes, it's met with the kind of mild discomfort usually associated with a backhanded compliment.
"It's something that we've strived for, but it's kind of double-edged," Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst told ESPN FC via telephone. "We don't want to be viewed as an expansion team. We're beyond that at this point, and now we want to go after it, and now that we've gotten a playoff spot, it's about seeding and giving ourselves the best chance of winning MLS Cup."
To be clear, the Chicago Fire's MLS Cup/U.S. Open Cup double in their inaugural season of 1998 means the "Best Expansion Team Ever" tag is safe to remain in the Windy City, at least in terms of on-field performance.
But Parkhurst and everyone else associated with Atlanta needn't worry about being looked at as an expansion team. Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, Atlanta has an outside shot at second place in the Eastern Conference, and its attack is second best in the league with 68 goals. Its goal differential of plus-30 is fourth best in league history.
This weekend, the Five Stripes are also poised to break their own MLS attendance record for a standalone match in brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with a crowd in excess of 70,000. The single-season average attendance mark is already in the bag, with Atlanta's mark of 46,721 through 16 games already above the Seattle Sounders' average of 44,247 set in 2015.
"It's been amazing to see the city and the state get behind the club, not just in the numbers, but the way that they get behind the team," said team president Darren Eales. "You'll be in Atlanta and you'll see the Atlanta United flags everywhere. It's just been really cool to see it take over the city."
Atlanta's success, both on and off the field, is the result of the deep pockets and vision of owner Arthur Blank, meticulous planning by Eales and his staff. But also near-perfect execution on the technical side from technical director Carlos Bocanegra, director of soccer operations Paul McDonough, manager Tata Martino right on down to the players.
Simply put, Atlanta has made few if any mistakes on or off the field. It helped that it has learned some of the hard lessons endured by other MLS teams, in particular organizations like Seattle, Toronto FC and the New England Revolution that have other pro sports teams under the same umbrella like Atlanta has with the NFL's Falcons.
"Atlanta spent a lot of time in our office up until January, February of this year," said Seattle majority owner Adrian Hanauer. "I actually was sitting next to Arthur at the last board of governors meeting and told him, 'The Seattle Expansion Consulting Co. is closed, and I'm expecting the Atlanta Expansion Consulting Co. to be the new place where we send everyone. You guys can do that job now. We're passing the baton.' He laughed. He thanked me for allowing their entire staff to come spend time with us."
Eales noted that kind of collegiality is unique in the world of soccer, especially compared to his time with Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur. But Bocanegra was quick to note that the sharing of knowledge had its limits.
"People weren't giving away their strategy and what kind of players they were looking for and things like that," he said. "We had a discussion with a lot of people so that we could get the organization structurally sound, and making sure we have all the positions filled properly."
But spending time with other teams enabled Eales to determine where the demarcation line should be in terms of resources that should be shared with the Falcons and where United needed to hire its own staff. Any position that was "fan-facing" was dedicated 100 percent to Atlanta United.
"That really helped me when I was putting the plan together for how we were going to build the club," he said.
Prior to United's arrival, Atlanta's reputation as a fickle sports town was well established, with the city's numerous transplants often keeping hold of their old sporting allegiances. And without a minor league side to help seed the marketplace, the challenge of growing the fan base looked immense. But the fan outreach, from the announcement of the team's name to the kit launch to the first game played by the academy was constant. A new team in a relatively new sport allowed United to be embraced by the local populace.
"I think what we found and what we were able to tap into was making Atlanta United the club in Atlanta that everyone can say is their team," said Eales. "So building something from scratch really helped us."
The breadth of knowledge on the technical side has been another source of strength. Martino has been vital in terms of the team's recruitment of South American players such as forward Josef Martinez, midfielder Miguel Almiron and defender Leandro Gonzalez-Pires. Yet Bocanegra's time spent playing in the league, along with McDonough's experience as GM of Orlando City during its expansion season, has provided Atlanta with the wisdom needed to fill out the rest of its roster, with MLS veterans like Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz both having solid seasons. Greg Garza, with his ability to speak multiple languages, has been an important bridge in the locker room.
"I would laugh with [McDonough], because he would have a realistic view and sometimes I would get carried away," Eales said. "Paul would bring me back down to earth. 'It's difficult being an expansion team!' That balance was great."
To be clear, Martino remains a centerpiece of Atlanta's season. His recruitment of young, talented South American players has been vital, and his ability to implement his dynamic attacking style in such a short time has been impressive.
"Tata has an ability to not only coach [us] on the field but also be a calming factor as well," Parkhurst said. "And Tata has the pedigree and respect of everybody. It doesn't matter if they've played one game or every game, if they're the leading goalscorer or they're the No. 10. Everybody, when Tata speaks, is listening and nodding their head and going to do what he says, because it's meaning us having success as a team and individually."
That unity has allowed Atlanta to surmount one obstacle that always seems to trip up expansion teams, that of establishing chemistry. Talent always helps in this regard, and United clearly has plenty, but it isn't always enough.
"I could tell from the beginning, early on in preseason that we were going to have a very talented team, that our attack was going to be fun," Parkhurst said. "But you never know coming into a new team, especially one that's being built from the ground up, how quickly you're going to jell, how quickly you're going to get a system in place both on and off the field. There are just so many unknowns. I think that the team has really grown as the season has gone along."
The question now is whether Atlanta can sustain its inaugural year success. A great deal of hard work has already been done. The team has become an integral part of the city's sporting landscape. The initial challenge of putting the team together will not need to be replicated.
Hanauer's experience is instructive in this instance, however. He recalls the heady days of Seattle's first season in 2009, when everything was new and exciting. And it's not like things have gone downhill. The Sounders have won trophies -- including their first MLS Cup last year -- since then. But growing the business presents a different kind of challenge.
"It was a startup," Hanauer said. "Now we're a nine-year-old company that has to grind away a little bit more. It's turned into a real business, lots and lots of employees. Obviously splitting off business operations from the Seahawks for us was a bit of a restart for us. But my overarching emotion about Atlanta is just one of just pride that our league is making this kind of impression on the world sports stage, if not in the world at least in North America. People are taking notice."
Indeed they are, and with the playoffs approaching that is only bound to increase.
"It feels like we've been around for a long time," Eales said. "I know we're an expansion team and it's our first season, but it just feels like we've been around for a lot longer."
They're playing like it, too.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.