Long overdue for a professional soccer franchise, Atlanta has served as the perfect location for Major League Soccer’s newest expansion club. ESPN Football Club’s Taylor Twellman said, “Atlanta United has single handedly given everyone a look of what Major League Soccer should look like. Stadium? Home Run. Coaching? Home Run. Every single week I look at the schedule and say who is Atlanta United playing because I want to watch them.”
United opened the season in Bobby Dodd stadium, where 55,297 fans attended their first home game. Even though they suffered a 1-2 loss to the New York Red Bulls, they sent a strong message to the league that they would be playoff contenders in their inaugural season. After a delay in construction of the retractable roof pushed back their opener at the new Mercedes Benz-Stadium, FC Dallas played Atlanta United on Sep. 10 in the first ever MLS match at the new stadium. A Leandro Gonzalez goal in the 14th minute got the match underway, and goals from Josef Martínez and Greg Garza sealed a 3-0 victory.
A few days later, a home match at “The Benz” vs. Orlando City FC drew the largest crowd in MLS History. Senior Katia Hanger said “Mercedes-Benz is super nice. The games were still awesome at the Georgia Tech stadium, but the new stadium brings it to another level. There are great food options and it is just a super cool atmosphere overall.” Since the Orlando City game, they have been dominant at home, only losing one game there the rest of the season to give them a record of 15-8-7.
The team’s biggest nickname so far is the “Five Stripes.” This nickname originates from the team’s primary kit, which has five black and red stripes, that represent the five pillars of unity, determination, community, excellence and innovation.
United primarily runs a 4-2-3-1 formation, which emphasizes a strong attack and plenty of opportunities to score up top, at the cost of forcing their central attacking midfielders to be two-way players who are required get back on defense. However, the United midfielders embrace this role gladly. Junior Ben Smoke said, “They have a super fast-paced team with a great work ethic. Everybody on the team defends, including the midfielders and forwards.” In terms of play style, Argentine born manager Geraldo “Tata” Martino employs a Tiki-Taka (short passing and movement) with an onslaught of fast counter attacks for 90 minutes.
On the pitch, the “Five Stripes” are led by forward Josef Martínez. The electric sharpshooter from Valencia, Venezuela played for a series of teams in Italy and Venezuela before joining Atlanta on Feb. 1st. A late season surge has placed him in contention for the MLS Golden Boot (leading goal scorer). Despite missing ten more matches than every other contender, he only trails league leader Nemanja Nickolics by three goals (21-18). Along with Argentinian midfielder Hector Villaba and Paraguayan midfielder Miguel Almirón, the three combine to form Atlanta’s three allotted designated players, or players outside the salary cap restrictions.
Wesleyan Technology Director Andrew Blackburn said, “Almirón is my personal favorite. It seems like he genuinely enjoys being an Atlanta United player and is happiest when on the field.” Because Atlanta could hand pick their star players from the large talent pool of world soccer players, they were able to build an identity as a competitive and exciting team at the outset of their franchise.
Not only has Atlanta embraced the squad, but Wesleyan students and faculty have as well. Senior Henry Beltrami is a season ticket holder and attends as many games as possible. He said, “The atmosphere is incredible. Everyone stands the entire game, and the stadium is never quiet. By now, almost all the fans know all the chants, songs and celebrations. One of the coolest parts about the games is how it brings people together. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never spoken a word to them. When the ball hits the back of the net, you hug anyone in sight.”
Junior Lexi Jerding said, “[the experience] was definitely one I will never forget. It was really cool to see so many people come together to support a sport that I’ve loved my whole life, but isn’t as popular in the United States as it is in other countries around the world.”
Smoke said, “I was living in Virginia when I learned that the new team was coming. I was excited for a new potential rivalry, and after I moved to Atlanta I was thrilled to learn I could have a hometown MLS team to root for. I was there from the beginning.” Wesleyan legend, brother of English teacher Dawson Zimmerman and defender for FC Dallas Walker Zimmerman said, “As someone from Atlanta, I like that Atlanta United has such a great fan support. It’s an awesome environment to play in, probably the loudest place we play.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the team is their resounding success so early after their inception. With only two games left in their season, the “Five Stripes” are on pace to tie the best-ever regular season finish for an MLS expansion franchise (third place). Additionally, they are seeking to become the first expansion team since the 1988 Chicago Fire to win the MLS Cup. A championship would be a cherry on top for what has been an outstanding season for United.
No “experts” predicted a soccer team nestled deep within the confines of SEC football country would have so much success and attendance. As Blackburn said, “Who would have thought that our team would have been so good and our turn out for games would be so high?”