By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)
Writing a data based season preview for an expansion team is an interesting proposition. The only data available are individual player statistics with other teams, but projecting how those players will work together in the new whole is nearly impossible. What data we do have for Atlanta United is that owner Arthur Blank, currently the most depressed sports mogul in the universe, has spent significant money to bring excitement to the city of Atlanta. Exactly how much remains to be seen but given the names on this list it’s safe to say that Atlanta United will be among the spending elite in MLS.
They started by signing a big name coach in Gerard “Tata” Martino, most recently the coach who oversaw Argentina’s drubbing of the United States in the Copa America Centenario. The roster is impressive as well. They signed Kenwyne Jones, the Trinidad and Tobago striker who scored more than 70 goals in England. There’s the young Venezuelen DP striker Josef Martinez, and USMNT left back Greg Garza, on loan from Liga MX. On the wing will be Hector Villalba, another DP from Argentina’s San Lorenzo. Blank also shelled out to have USMNT keeper Brad Guzan arrive in the summer. Oh, and I almost forget their prized signing, worth a reported $8.5 million transfer fee, the Arsenal target Miguel Almiron, a 23 year old attacking midfielder. This list keeps going with MLS veterans Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz, and more. Arthur Blank might be feeling better real soon.
But for the all important data on how this impressive group might come together we turn to the human mind of one Rob Usry, the managing editor of Dirty South Soccer, a site that has been covering Atlanta United for a year and a half. I asked Rob if there were still any missing holes in the United roster.
“[President] Darren Eales and [Technical Director] Carlos Bocanegra have done a tremendous job building the roster. They have a variety of strikers from shifty and pacey to big and strong holdup players. Midfield is wear it gets interesting behind Miguel Almiron, the playmaker, where there's a plethora of box-to-box players with different skill sets. It could be argued that they need a true defensive midfielder, but Carlos Carmona could be that option. He missed a significant portion of the preseason but is expected to play that role with Jeff Larentowicz being another option.
The backline has depth and experience. It should be good to go.
Goalkeeper is a bit of a question mark until [Brad] Guzan arrives. [Alec] Kann is the projected starter but has struggled with distribution while under pressure, something that is vital in Martino's system. Aside from those two minor worries, chemistry is the biggest thing needed for success.”
Let’s talk about chemistry because that seems to be the biggest question mark. Only three players on the roster have significant MLS experience and there’s a noted bent toward South American players.
“I think there's bound to be an adjustment period for all involved with Atlanta United once the real thing starts. There's bound to be complications along the way. It's a matter of how fast they identify their weaknesses and address them to how successful their inaugural season will be. Different styles and matchups will create unique problems for Tata's system. Adjusting to those issues will be one of the team's biggest tasks in 2017.
The team stated their intended goal was to be fast, young, and attacking. They could've accomplished that with any combination of nationalities. Tata's familiarity with the Argentine League and Argentina national team pool played a huge part in the team's acquisitions.
It's no secret South Americans have had much success in MLS. Atlanta are banking on that trend to continue by finding a manager who can get the most out of their talent.”
The defense might be the next biggest question mark, at least early in the season, and tactics will dictate how well they perform. Martino is known for a high pressure, high possession style from his Barcelona days and that might expose the back line. How successful they are may come down to how much Martino chooses to protect the defense with shape at the expense of letting the midfield loose. That will be just one of many balancing acts Atlanta United will have to practice early on. There is no doubt there will be growing pains but few would be surprised if this team makes a run into the playoffs by year end. It would be perfectly fine for this expansion club to experience the same playoff-less fate that NYCFC and Orlando City did in their inaugural seasons, but there is a different vibe with this club. They have everything in place but chemistry and data. Arthur Blank has a little luck coming his way, and that might just be enough to overcome those issues.