Atlanta United's ambition: to become 'the biggest club in America'

Matt Pentz
Seattle Sounders vs. Atlanta United
ATLUTD battled the defending MLS champs to a scoreless draw. (AP Photo)

As far as scoreless early-season Major League Soccer draws go, the 0-0 tie last Friday between the Seattle Sounders and Atlanta United was as good as it gets.

The level of intensity was high, as both teams went right at one another from the outset. And when other coaches might have settled for a point in the standings, Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer threw on Clint Dempsey as a second-half substitute and Atlanta’s Gerardo Martino countered with Miguel Almiron.

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Either side could have won it late. For the sake of fairness, it was probably right that neither did. The matchup was even more compelling from a big-picture perspective, with the league’s original expansion darling going up against the club that has picked up the mantle with aplomb.

Atlanta visited a good number of MLS franchises asking for advice in the lead-up to its debut campaign. United didn’t always bring along the whole brain trust, as it did during its visit to Seattle in early 2015 when it sat down first with the Seahawks of the NFL and then with the Sounders to study how they worked.

“Seattle set the benchmark,” said Atlanta president Darren Eales, the former executive director at Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League.

The Sounders – like Toronto FC before them – established a model that almost every successful expansion team since has at least borrowed from. Atlanta United has followed that blueprint more closely than most.

Like Seattle, which has since split off its business operations from the Seahawks, Atlanta attached itself to an NFL team while getting off the ground. United will also share its home stadium with the Falcons when the $1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium opens later this year.

Atlanta will take aim at the Sounders’ previously untouchable attendance figures. It attracted more fans to each of its first two home games than the crowd of 40,182 that made its way to CenturyLink Field on Friday night.

The two clubs share another defining character trait: ambition.

“We have big goals,” United sporting director Carlos Bocanegra said. “We’d like to be the biggest club in America. We’d like to sort of follow in the Sounders’ footsteps and try to take it even to a level beyond.”

So there was something Dickensian to the leading lights of MLS’s present and future meeting on the same field.

Seattle is still easing into its title defense – a work-in-progress looking to develop chemistry after turning over much of its supporting cast from last season. Atlanta, well-coached and deeper than your average first-year squad, looks like the real deal and has showcased a steeliness that might be more impressive than the attacking firepower it has displayed.

“I’m learning soccer again,” Atlanta United veteran defender Tyrone Mears said. “That’s how good [Martino] is.”

If it keeps it up, Atlanta won’t just challenge Seattle’s unprecedented ability to gather butts in seats. United could also very well be the first expansion team since the Sounders in 2009 to reach the playoffs.

ONE TOUCHES

Some other observations from the fifth weekend of MLS action:

Vancouver’s surprising trade

The deal of Kekuta Manneh to the Columbus Crew was a tacit admission that something is flawed about these Vancouver Whitecaps.

Sure, the 22-year-old winger struggled with consistency and injury. But Manneh still has the potential to be a truly special talent. And up until now, the ‘Caps had seemed more than willing to allow young players to go through growing pains because they had one eye on the long game.
This move is a drastic break from that philosophy.

Tony Tchani, acquired from Columbus, helps shore up Vancouver’s shaky midfield. And the Whitecaps netted $300,000 in allocation money. Yet it’s hard to escape the feeling of promise unfulfilled.

Two years ago, the young, hungry Whitecaps took the Western Conference by storm en route to the No. 2 seed. They bowed meekly out of that postseason, but it certainly seemed as though their best days were ahead of them.

Saturday night’s home 4-2 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy might raise spirits for the moment. But don’t gloss over the trade’s larger implications. By dealing Manneh, Vancouver called time on the strategy that inspired the loftiest successes of its MLS era.

Crew redux?

This Columbus squad more closely resembles the one that made MLS Cup in 2015 than the version that missed the playoffs last year.

With a 2-0 home win over Orlando City on Saturday, the Crew vaulted to the top of the Eastern Conference. Justin Meram has tallied three goals and two assists in five games, and the midfield combination of Wil Trapp and Artur has solidified the team’s spine.

It’s early. But sometimes all it takes to turn things around is the close introspection of a disappointing year and the reset button of the offseason.

Howler of the Week

Nick Rimando, Real Salt Lake.

I hadn’t planned on making this a weekly feature, but Rimando forced my hand with the gaffe that helped Minnesota United lock up its inaugural MLS win.

Watch yourself, Loons. With just two points and three goals scored in five matches, RSL might push MNUFC in the race to the bottom of the West.

Goal of the Week

Diego Valeri, Portland Timbers.

Volleys aren’t hit much more cleanly than that. And maybe that’ll teach the New England Revolution not to pop up a header inside its own box. The Timbers, though, failed to protect their early lead and allowed the Revs to escape Providence Park with a 1-1 draw.

Matt Pentz covers Major League Soccer for FC Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.