I don’t envy FC Cincinnati. Nor do I envy Inter Miami or Austin FC. Or any other expansion franchises that Major League Soccer might add in the coming years, because all of them will be judged against the accomplishments of Atlanta United. The “Five Stripes” play for the MLS Cup on Saturday, playing host against the Portland Timbers (7 p.m., Ch. 9) as heavy favorites to lift the championship in just their second season.
It’d be an appropriate reward for the new gold standard among new MLS franchises.
Minnesota United, which made the move to MLS at the same time as Atlanta, has lived out the traditional expansion timeline. The Loons have struggled for two seasons under a journeyman coach and with a roster full of slightly-too-seasoned veterans and as-yet-unproven young players, grappling both with their on-field play and finding their off-field place in a crowded sports marketplace.
Atlanta endured no such growing pains. It moved into a stadium shared with the NFL’s Falcons and started filling it immediately. The team signed a world-class coach in Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who quickly molded budding South American attackers like Josef Martínez and Miguel Almirón into top-end league talent. He also cobbled together a stable squad behind them. MLS has seen plenty of big-spending, big-dreaming teams flop, but Atlanta started hot and has hardly cooled since.
In the process, Martino’s squad has already moved on to a question that often takes a decade to haunt new teams: Can they win the big one?
For two consecutive years Atlanta failed to win on the regular season’s final day with a big prize on the line — a first-round bye in the playoffs last year, a Supporters’ Shield this year. It lost, at home, on penalties in last year’s playoff knockout round. Its fans hope that this year’s conference finals, when Atlanta blitzed New York 3-0 in the first leg and then waltzed to a calm 3-1 aggregate victory, is a harbinger of a new big-game-winning type of team.
On the other side are the Portland Timbers, playing their fourth consecutive playoff round as an underdog. Under new coach Gio Savarese, the Timbers started the year with a five-game losing streak, thanks mostly to a porous defense. Savarese sensibly decided to throw away his pre-season plans and switch to focusing on defending, and his team responded with a 15-game unbeaten streak. That’s the type of pragmatic success that Minnesota fans have seen for years from Savarese, who regularly defeated Minnesota when he coached the New York Cosmos against the Loons in the old NASL.
The contrast should make for an absorbing contest Saturday, as Atlanta’s success is based on attacking and Portland’s is based on defending. It’s worked for Portland so far in these playoffs, but Martínez and Almirón and company are beyond what they’ve faced in previous rounds.
Triumph or not, Atlanta may have to rebuild over the winter. Martínez, the league MVP, and Almirón likely will be sold to big-name European teams. Martino is heavily rumored to be taking over the Mexican national team. But after the initial build went so well, there’s no reason to bet against more success in Atlanta’s future. Other expansion teams will find it a tough blueprint to match.
Writer Jon Marthaler gives you a recap of recent events and previews the week ahead. • firstname.lastname@example.org