Atlanta-Toronto matchup represents a changing of the MLS guard
In each of the past two seasons, Toronto FC was the clear and obvious frontrunner in Major League Soccer.
That might feel a bit like 20/20 hindsight about the 2016 team that won neither the Supporters' Shield nor MLS Cup, burdened as it was by playoff failures past. Each of that year's New York sides was flawed in its own way, Mauro Diaz's knee injury blew open the Western Conference and no team had anybody like Sebastian Giovinco. But last season's Toronto was a destroyer of worlds, the first club in MLS history ever to win a domestic cup, the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup in the same calendar year.
The point is that Toronto has for a while now been the default answer when any rational fan is asked who was likeliest to lift silverware in the end.
That is no longer the case. And the team that has picked up that mantle looks primed and ready to run TFC off the field on Saturday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta vs. Toronto (4:00 p.m. ET, ESPN) feels significant both as a marker of the changing of the guard and of shifting eras.
To clarify: I'm not writing off the Reds entirely. Two straight victories have them heading into the weekend six points out of an Eastern Conference playoff spot, a formidable but not impossible hill to climb. With this team's pedigree, and the amount of talent still packed into the roster, it wouldn't be shocking if Toronto not only surged into the postseason but made some serious noise once there.
The team TFC faced in each of the past two Cup finals has mastered this kind of trajectory. Seattle is at it again, unbeaten in six following a dreadful spring and early summer, suddenly right in the thick of the hunt as if the first four months never happened.
That's part of the reason, however, why league observers outside of the Pacific Northwest are likely to remember this recent era as belonging to Toronto, not Seattle, even if the two clubs ended up with a championship apiece.
Standalone silverware is enough to appease your fan base, but in order to stand out in league history, the regular season does matter. Start-to-finish dominance does matter.
And that's what I mean when I say that Atlanta has picked up Toronto's mantle: Even if it doesn't ultimately go on to win the title, when you look back on the 2018 MLS season a few years from now, United's breakout story is the one that will have stayed with you.
The numbers tell a convincing enough story on their own. Atlanta leads the league in wins (14), goals (48) and goal differential (plus-22). Forward Josef Martinez could get injured right this second, with 11 matches left to play, and he'd still probably win league MVP -- his 24 goals are three shy of the MLS single-season record and we've only just come out of the All-Star break.
More than the stats, and something it shares with the TFC of 2017 specifically, Atlanta makes you feel every time they play. Tata Martino's charges press high and counter at speed. They're in your face, freewheeling and so, so fast, playing in front of capacity crowds larger than MLS has ever seen. They might not be the very best, but they're as fun of a team as has ever called the league home.
Even if the wheels come off -- and for all of its successes, this team does have a few flaws, struggling to put away teams especially lately -- memories of those visceral thrills will remain.
Even when factoring in its struggles this season, Toronto FC's legacy is secure. It will always be the first squad to win the treble, the one that came a penalty-kick shootout from ending MLS' long CONCACAF Champions League drought.
Its time, however, has passed. This is Atlanta United's league now.