Just how good are Atlanta United?

Atlanta United are blazing fast and play with a thrilling, frenetic energy. They’re fun and must-watch TV. But how good are they really?

By expansion team standards, for Atlanta to be sitting in a playoff position, as they are now, is a positive sign. But the team has also been incredibly ambitious, spending millions more than many other teams in MLS and drawing sellout crowds of nearly 50,000.

They aren’t any ordinary expansion team and for all the money the team has spent and all the firepower they have, they probably expected better by now than barely hanging onto the last playoff spot in MLS’s weaker conference. What’s more, they seem to have holes waiting to be exposed.

There was perhaps no better illustration of that than Atlanta’s shock 3-1 loss to D.C. United on Sunday. Through the first 10 minutes, it looked like D.C. were in for a bloodbath — they required goalkeeper Bill Hamid to make two massive saves in the first few minutes until he eventually conceded a goal. But once that happened, D.C. regrouped and zeroed in a simple game plan: Limit Atlanta’s counterattacking opportunities and beat them at their own game. It worked.

D.C. United tweaked their formation to cover the central midfield more and waited for Atlanta to overextend themselves — once Atlanta flung too far forward, D.C. were a couple passes away from being alone on the other end of the field, in prime scoring position. In the opposite direction, D.C. got smarter about protecting the ball and about cutting out Atlanta’s transition opportunities, and thusly Atlanta’s big scoring chances plummeted.

It’s the perfect blueprint against an Atlanta team that not only plays aggressive, speedy counterattacking soccer, but isn’t really built to play another way. Miguel Almiron is Atlanta’s central playmaker, but he is best in transition, not so much at building slowly out the back. Atlanta’s goal-scorers are similar speedsters, like Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba.

Coming into this season, one concern about Tata Martino was that foreign coaches have often struggled to adapt to the unique challenges of MLS. But the other concern was that Martino specifically has often been a coach intent on staying the course and slow to make in-game adjustments as the dynamics change. He had no answer for D.C. United on Sunday and Atlanta haven’t shown this season they can change tactics on the fly and wage comebacks.

But there’s also no reason, for now, to think Atlanta can’t get better and cut out the mistakes that D.C. United feasted upon. The first time any of these players competed together was in February and good chemistry takes time to build. They began the season with nothing but room for growth, something only fellow expansion team Minnesota United can also say. With their short amount of time to form a cohesive unit, there’s reason to believe that no team in MLS is due to improve as much as Atlanta.

Atlanta are hardly short on talent either. Just look at who is on their roster.

The expansion team signed a player in Almiron who had interest from Arsenal. Villalba and Martinez were big signings from San Lorenzo and Torino. While the South American influence is heavy on Atlanta’s roster, they added MLS veterans like Tyrone Mears and Michael Parkhurst in defense, where it’s needed most. Simply put, Atlanta is in the upper echelon of big-spenders in MLS and they’ve got the roster to prove it — but with Carlos Bocanegra pulling the strings, they’ve built in a strategic way.

Despite all that — the money poured into their roster, their state-of-the-art training facilities and their high ambitions — expansion teams rarely do very well in their first year. With Atlanta sitting barely in playoff position, is it possible they are a fun expansion team to watch, but only as good as a typical expansion team, nonetheless?

Since 2005, the league has seen 11 expansion teams come in and still only one, the 2009 Seattle Sounders, has made it to the playoffs in their first season. Atlanta look to be only barely hanging on with three-quarters of the MLS season left to play out. But if they make into the playoffs, are they a good team? By expansion standards, most likely.

But whether Atlanta United are genuinely contenders for an MLS Cup — a good team, period — remains an open question still. The talent is there, but they may be boxing themselves into a high-risk, high-reward style that teams in MLS will figure out, just like D.C. United did. If that happens, Atlanta may end up like just another usual expansion team when it’s all said and done.