Atlanta United's swift expansion success putting franchise in rarefied air
ATLANTA - Six months in and Atlanta United is on pace to become arguably the most successful expansion team to ever enter the MLS to date. Perhaps, of all professional sports teams in North America, the quickest to attain prosperity.
That's not a hot take. Everyone wants a piece of what Atlanta United is having.
In the first two games alone, the team combined for over 100,000 fans. Not even the Seattle Sounders, who maintained an average of 42,628 fans, turned out an attendance equivalent to that at Bobby Dodd Stadium. The Five Stripes surpassed that number by Week 9 with 49,077 fans, then to hold down a total average of 46,482 per game. And that's just at Bobby Dodd. Wait until the move to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
You see, what Atlanta United is doing is special. But to fully put the cherry on top is life beyond the regular season. Not just the playoffs, but rather secure an MLS Cup and future success exceeding that feat. Again, there's a lot of hype. For Atlanta United to permanently engrave itself among the Mount Rushmore of professional expansion teams, it'll need to win. And, well, win more.
No expansion team qualified for the playoffs in its inaugural season, except for the Sounders in 2009. The Sounders seemingly find their way into the playoffs every year, including a victory lap last season. Yet, this year might as well be the first time they don't qualify. Believe it or not, the Sounders sit seventh in the Western Conference, which is just below the red line.
Chicago Fire is the lone club to win the MLS Cup in its first year of existence back in 1998. That's not to put an immense amount of pressure on the shoulders of the Five Stripes. What this club managed to achieve thus far is unmeasurable. Not necessarily on the field, but off as well.
Let's flip the script for a second. Other newcomer to the league this year is Minnesota United. It is sitting dead last in its respective Western Conference with its attendance only half of Atlanta's. Not to further put salt over its wounds, but it's highly underperforming for an expansion team.
The Portland Timbers started its MLS franchise in 2011 and went on to win it all in 2015. So it clearly isn't out of the ordinary for it to take time. But the bar Atlanta United raised for the MLS, one can't help but hope there's a brighter light at the end of the tunnel.
Front office intact: The perfect formula
Some may say it's interesting to look at how it started from the ground up, which is remarkable for what it's worth. Instead, glance at the top down and you'll gain a better appreciation of its existence.
Owner Arthur Blank announced the startup of Atlanta United in 2014. The rest is history as his son helped propel the dream to bring MLS to the ATL. Look at the president Darren Eales, who once was Director of Football Administration for Tottenham Hotspur FC in the English Premier League.
Then Atlanta brings in Carlos Bocanegra as the technical director. The two-time MLS Defender of the Year, captained the U.S. men's national team for six years. His credibility is recognized among players from a number of leagues across the globe.
To smooth out the icing on the cake, Atlanta United brought in Paul McDonough as Director of Soccer Operations. Previously, he served two years as the Vice President of Soccer Operations for Orlando City SC. So he contains familiarity with a startup club. Especially, a club that went out and signed Brazilian sensation Kaká.
There was just one thing remaining ... Name a head coach.
Not just any gaffer. Gerardo "Tata" Martino. An well-tenured manager who has managed teams from the Paraguayan and Argentine national squads, in addition to the infamous Catalan club, FC Barcelona.
Building the squad: Where to invest
What makes Atlanta United unique as far as a roster standpoint is it went primarily young. There are only 13, out of a total of 32 players, above the age of 25. It added veterans like defenders Michael Pankhurst and Tyrone Mears and midfielder Jeff Larentowicz to balance the scale, but it's no secret that Atlanta fancies the younger sensations.
Granted, when Atlanta United scrambled around to put a team together it wasn't perfect. Signees like midfielder Chris McCann or forward Kenwyne Jones took on hefty contracts, only to fit into role players.
Teams in the MLS are limited to three Designated Players (DP). As stated by the MLS, the DP Rule allows clubs to acquire up to three players whose total compensation and acquisition costs exceed the maximum budget charge.
For example, recent expansion side New York City named Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and David Villa as its DPs. Another case in point is Steven Gerrard with LA Galaxy.
It's fun for the fans, sure. However, Atlanta United decided it wouldn't follow suit.
Atlanta's three DPs include: midfielder Miguel Almirón, forward Hector Villalba and forward Josef Martinez. They are 23, 22, and 24-years-old respectively in comparison to a 30 something year old signed by the likes of New York. Atlanta United fancied to invest young and build young.
The training facility located in suburban Marietta, Ga., is a whopping $60 million, 30,000-square-foot area. Next to Real Salt Lake, who also spent an identical price tag, no club really has training grounds like what Atlanta United offers. Especially, a place for the youth academy to play.
Eales clearly established a plan from the get-go and now that it's in full swing, Atlanta United put itself on the map. Literally.
The club inking a deal with FOX Sports South and Southeast only helped extend its product to around 10 million households across six states (Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and the Carolinas).
With that in mind, Atlanta United possesses one of the largest local reaches in the MLS. It's also noted that the club's social media reach and merchandise sales also escalated ... Before the players ever touched the field.
Atlanta United's success emulates a 20 or 30-year-old club. And crazy enough, it's only just the beginning. The league is about to spiral due to what this team is doing to the history books. Keep up, MLS.