Atlanta United managed to win the MLS Cup in only their second season in the MLS. The Cup Final recorded the highest ever attendance level for a final with just over seventy-three thousand fans at the Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta. No doubt the Atlanta team set the league on fire last season with their attacking and possessive style of soccer led by manager Tata Martino. Players such as Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron were extremely influential in the team’s success throughout the season. Martinez scored a league record 31 goals while contributing 6 assists. Almiron racked up an impressive 14 assists and 12 goals through 32 games. Hector Villalba, Julian Gressel, and Ezequiel Barco were an impressive supporting cast as well. All of this resulted in a Cup win and a place in the CONCACAF Champions League for the 2019 season. However, Tata Martino and Miguel Almiron have left for pastures new, with Martino taking the helm of the Mexican National Team, and Almiron becoming the record signing for Newcastle United in the Premier League. With these key losses to the side, does Atlanta United have a chance to repeat their title challenge while also trying to become the first MLS side to win the CONCACAF Champions League?
Although the Atlanta United lost two key pieces from their title winning season, the club quickly acknowledged the need to replace them with equal talent. In December, Frank de Boer was hired as the new manager of Atlanta United. An impressive player who won the UEFA Champions League and played for both Ajax in the Eredivisie and Barcelona in La Liga. He managed sides all around Europe including Ajax and Inter Milan. However, de Boer lasted less than a full season at Inter and Crystal Palace and a string of defeats cost him his job at both clubs. While his reputation may have been tarnished by two failed spells at clubs in prestigious leagues, de Boer should be able to implement his possession based tactical approach with Atlanta United. It is important to remember that he managed a talented Ajax side in the Eredivisie from 2010 to 2016. Ajax are a club that are primarily focused on developing young talent such as Christian Eriksen, Jan Vertonghen, and Luis Suarez. The incredible crop of talent already at the Atlanta United as well as the support from upper management will provide de Boer with the necessary resources to be successful. Barco, Villalba, Carleton, and Bello should see further development under de Boer.
Miguel Almiron departure for Newcastle United should sting for Atlanta supporters as his link up play with Martinez and his ability on the ball will be difficult to replicate. Atlanta acknowledged to add another body to replace Almiron, and have brought in Gonzalo Martinez from River Plate for around $23 million. Martinez is traditionally a wide player, but does offer the ability to perform in the number ten role for Atlanta United. Considering that de Boer utilized a 4-3-3 formation during his time at Ajax, it is likely that he will prefer to implement the same formation with Atlanta. This should give Gonzalo the chance to be utilized out wide or in the middle of the pitch. It should be exciting to see if Gonzalo and Josef and develop a strong on pitch relationship in the coming season.
Most of the core players are returning to Atlanta United for the 2019 season. Their cohesion should be critical to finding success. Toronto F.C., who won the 2017 MLS Cup struggled to replicate their strong run in 2018 with the club being mired in the middle of the Eastern Conference. Atlanta will need to put further emphasis on their bench to get them through a busier schedule with the CONCACAF Champions League and MLS Open Competition. It is unfair to expect Josef Martinez to score 31 goals this upcoming season, although he certainly has the skill to do so. If the younger crop of players can further develop and contribute, including buying into Frank de Boer training methods and tactical approach, they will be instrumental in pushing Atlanta into the playoffs.
Atlanta United should be considered the favorites to repeat in 2019. They have a passionate and raucous fan base who will intimidate any opponent visiting the Mercedes Benz Stadium. They have an impressive coach, who has proven his ability to utilize and develop young talent. They have the best striker in the MLS and are flush with young talent. Whether Atlanta United can triumph in the CONCACAF Champions League is another story. This season will be a tougher test of Atlanta’s mental and physical strength, but at the end of the 2019 season, they will be celebrating with another MLS Cup trophy.