Atlanta United, the reigning MLS Cup champions, have been around for only three seasons as an expansion club. That’s hard to tell, however, given how elite the team has become.
In each of its three seasons, Atlanta has secured a postseason berth and a home playoff game, including this season, when it will host the Revolution Saturday afternoon.
When the city was awarded an MLS franchise in 2014, Home Depot co-founder and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank stepped up to found the league’s 20th club. Blank quickly created a buzz in the city over the soccer team, which was to begin play in 2017. It was evident even then that Atlanta United would be a different kind of MLS team.
Their history is brief, but United have accomplished more than many teams that have been in the league a lot longer. They have averaged 62 points per season and won four trophies, including that 2018 MLS Cup.
Atlanta even earned a measure of continental supremacy by defeating Liga MX champion Club America in the Campeones Cup, 3-2, in August. Two weeks later, the Five Stripes won their first US Open Cup by defeating Minnesota United at home, 2-1.
But there wasn’t much to celebrate when the 2019 season started. Through April, United were just 2-3-2 and frustration was mounting. But as the team shook off the lingering effects of a failed CONCACAF Champions League run, their form improved, and the Five Stripes went on to finish second in the Eastern Conference with an 18-12-4 record, their 58 points the third-best total in the league.
Building a team from scratch, Blank hired the legendary Tata Martino as the club’s first coach, a decision that resulted in the acquisition of several key players.
First came midfielders Hector Villalba and Miguel Almiron. The little-known Paraguayan youngsters partnered to command United’s midfield. Though Almiron was sold to English club Newcastle ahead of the 2019 season, Villalba has flourished in his increased role as a playmaker and field general.
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan from Middlesbrough and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez from Estudiantes have been consistent starters since joining the club in 2017. And former Revolution defender Michael Parkhurst, who is seeing limited minutes in what will be his final year, has been a key leader for Atlanta since the club began play.
Most notably, striker Josef Martinez was acquired from Torino on a $4.5 million transfer fee in 2017. He has put up video-game numbers, scoring 72 goals in 80 regular-season appearances. That includes 16 straight games with a goal this year, a league record and five games shy of a world record.
In its inaugural draft, Atlanta hit it big with a pair of top-10 picks.
Defender Miles Robinson, a native of Arlington who played at Syracuse, spent a little time in the USL on loan, then became a starting center back for the Five Stripes in 2019.
And Providence College product Julian Gressel has developed into one of the top young players in MLS. He was the 2017 MLS Rookie of the Year with five goals and nine assists in 32 games. The German midfielder has become a mainstay in the lineup and is rarely out of action.
This year, league veterans Darlington Nagbe and Justin Meram have both flourished with Atlanta.
United also brought in Pity Martinez, an exciting Argentine midfielder, from River Plate. Though he ha had his fair share of first-season struggles, he has shown flashes of the player he can become when on top of his game.
It was not easy for Atlanta to replace Martino, who left after last season’s championship to coach Mexico men’s national team. The Five Stripes went big with their next hire, bringing in former Ajax and Inter Milan boss Frank de Boer.
A defender for Barcelona and the Dutch national team at the height of his playing days, de Boer had an incredible run as Ajax coach from 2010-16, posting a record of 158-47-57. After that, failed stints at Inter in Italy and Crystal Palace in England seemingly spelled the end of top jobs for him.
Unlike traditional Dutch coaches, de Boer got away from the 4-3-3 formation in the latter portion of this season following the rough start. His new 3-4-3 approach has been more conducive for Atlanta’s vaunted attack and midfield groups.
From the team’s first home match at Bobby Dodd Stadium to its consistent sellouts and 36,000 season ticket-holders at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the support for United from the city of Atlanta has been remarkable.
The United set an MLS attendance record in early August when 72,548 fans took in a 3-0 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy. Their average attendance this season fell to 52,510 from the 2018 league-record mark of 53,002.
The biggest and most prominent supporters group is Terminus Legion. With a logo and name drawn from Atlanta’s railroad history, the group supports all levels of soccer in Atlanta and makes trips to Orlando City for rivalry games there.
Three other groups — Faction, Footie Mob, and Resurgence — are also well-represented at Five Stripes matches.
Dan Shulman can be reached at email@example.com.