What a first season in Major League Soccer it has been for Atlanta United.
The Five Stripes still have two games left to play but have already qualified for the MLS Cup play-offs and currently sit third in the Eastern Conference behind last year’s cup runners-up Toronto FC and Patrick Vieira led New York City FC.
But just how and why have Atlanta achieved such success in their inaugural season?
The club laid the foundations for success before they even kicked a ball.
Former Barcelona and Argentine national team manager Gerardo Martino was appointed as boss to bring experience and an exciting style of football to Atlanta. But, he still needed the players to do that.
Following a model previously used by DC United in the early 2000’s and more recently FC Dallas, Martino and the club targetted a number of South American players, bringing in Hector Villalba, Miguel Almiron, and Josef Martinez as their designated players while Yamil Asad and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez were also signed.
The rest of the squad was filled out with young American talent, MLS veterans and some names that will be familiar to English football fans, including Brad Guzan, Tyrone Mears, and Kenwyne Jones.
On paper, Atlanta United had one of the strongest squads in the MLS but, how would they get on when they finally took to the field?
Atlanta United’s first ever league match would be at home as they took on New York Red Bulls.
They got off to a flying started when Yamil Asad put them in front with 25 minutes gone, making history as the scorer of the clubs first ever competitive goal. However, a Daniel Royer equaliser and an own goal from Tottenham loanee Anton Walkes condemned the Five Stripes to a 2-1 defeat.
Martino’s side then picked up two big wins beating fellow MLS new boys Minnesota United 6-1, including a hat-trick from Josef Martinez and a brace from Miguel Almiron, before thumping Chicago Fire 4-0, ending their first month in the MLS on a high.
April was not a great month for Atlanta.
They started with two consecutive draws, 0-0 with Seattle Sounders and 2-2 against Toronto, both away from home.
Another away trip saw the Five Stripes suffer a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Montreal Impact thanks to a 93rd minute winner from Anthony Jackson-Hamel after Kenwyne Jones had given them the lead.
A fourth consecutive away game for Martino’s men did result in a win as they beat Real Salt Lake 3-1 but that scoreline was reversed when they finally returned to the Bobby Dodd Stadium to face DC United.
The bad month coincided with the loss of talismanic striker Josef Martinez to injury and they would have to cope without the Venezuelan until June.
May started in the same way that April ended as Atlanta suffered another 3-1 defeat, this time at the hands of New York City with former Barcelona attacker David Villa on the scoresheet.
The team’s inconsistent form was highlighted by their next three games as they went unbeaten.
A 1-1 draw with Portland Timbers stopped the rot before Houston Dynamos were put to the sword in a 4-1 win thanks to a brilliant Miguel Almiron hat-trick.
The Paraguayan continued his impressive form in front of a goal with a brace the following week as Atlanta exacted their revenge on New York City, defeating Patrick Vieira’s side 3-1 to end the month with a win.
Atlanta’s unbeaten streak proved to be a purple patch rather than a turning point as June started with two consecutive defeats, 3-1 against Vancouver Whitecaps and 2-0 against Chicago Fire, both away from home.
The return of Josef Martinez a week later however, would be a turning a point. Atlanta beat Columbus Crew 3-1 with Martinez coming off the bench to score and secure the win for the Five Stripes.
DC United were up next and they downed Martino’s side once again by a scoreline of 2-1, despite Atlanta taking the lead through Julian Gressel.
A six-game unbeaten streak would follow in the wake of that defeat, beginning with a narrow 1-0 win over Colorado Rapids as Josef Martinez scored the winner just after the hour mark.
Columbus Crew were first up in July and a double from Hector Villalba saw Atlanta pick up a 2-0 win and three points on the road.
Back at the Bobby Dodd Stadium in midweek, Atlanta were involved in an entertaining game against San Jose Earthquakes. With the score level at 2-2 with just 10 minutes left, Anton Walkes and Josef Martinez both found the back of the net to secure a 4-2 win for the Five Stripes.
There was to be more late drama that weekend as Hector Villalba once again proved to be the match-winner as he scored in the 86th minute against Orlando City to win the game 1-0 for Atlanta.
It was the same opposition seven days later as Martino’s men welcomed Kaka and co. to the Empire City of the South. The former AC Milan and Real Madrid midfielder opened the scoring just before half-time but Hector Villalba was up to his old tricks, scoring a 92nd minute equaliser as the spoils were shared.
Four games for Atlanta in July. Three wins and a draw. A successful month.
The month started in the same way as the last ended, a 1-1 draw with a late equaliser, this time against Sporting Kansas City and it was Jacob Peterson with the all-important goal for Atlanta.
Seven games undefeated and ATL were on a high as they climbed the MLS Eastern Conference table but, it that streak was brought to an end by bogey side DC United. Meeting for the third time this season, a Michael Parkhurst own goal condemned the Five Stripes to a 1-0 defeat.
That game was merely a blip though as another undefeated run start immediately, but it took an incredible comeback for it to happen.
Atlanta travelled to Philadelphia Union and found themselves 2-0 down after just 23 minutes. However, Yamil Asad got them back in the game with 26 minutes played before defender Tyrone Mears popped up with a 91st minute equaliser to snatch a point in Philly.
By far and away the best month of Atlanta’s season.
It started with a 3-0 win over FC Dallas, the first game at the clubs new Mercedes-Benz Stadium and was followed by a 7-0 thumping of New England Revolution – Atlanta’s biggest win of the season so far – with Josef Martinez scoring a 39-minute hat-trick.
A third clash with Orlando City produced an absolute thriller as the sides traded blows but couldn’t be separated with the score finishing at 3-3. Martinez did, however, fire his second hat-trick in as many weeks.
LA Galaxy were up next and they received a 4-0 beating thanks to Martinez, Miguel Almiron and a brace from Yamil Asad.
A 2-0 win against Montreal Impact and a 3-0 win against Philadelphia Union followed to secure an MLS Cup play-off place rounded off a brilliant month for the Five Stripes.
Six games played, five wins, one draw, 22 goals scored, just three conceded, four clean sheets and an MLS Cup play-off spot earned. Does it get much better than that?
Making the play-offs appears to have made Atlanta take their foot off the gas.
A 0-0 draw with New England Revolution was not the best start to the month but it would only get worse when Minnesota United came to town.
Missing Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, and Brad Guzan because of international duty, two injury time goals from Christian Ramirez and Kevin Molino saw the visitors leave with three points and end a seven-game undefeated run for ATL.
The Five Stripes attacking power has been the key reason behind their success.
Josef Martinez, 18 games, 18 goals.
Miguel Almiron, 29 games, nine goals, 13 assists.
Hector Villalba, 32 games, 13 goals, 10 assists.
Yamil Asad, 30 games, six goals, 13 assists.
The quality that Atlanta have in attack has propelled them to the higher climbs of the Eastern Conference and they are the second highest scoring team with 68 goals, just three less than Toronto.
Without the goals, would Gerardo Martino’s side be where they are?
Ever Improving Defence
Five clean sheets in their first 24 games. That was the record that Atlanta United had at the end of August.
Since then they have kept six in their last eight, a huge improvement and one that has seen them climb the table and secure an MLS Cup play-off spot at the first time of asking.
Both goals and clean sheets will be needed if they are to win the whole thing, but it can be done.