After Toronto FC made the record for the most points in a season in MLS, racking up 69 points, people have already begun to tip who will be their biggest competitor, hoping to steal the crown from the Reds in 2018. There have been teams such as New York City FC, the Seattle Sounders, and Real Salt Lake who have all been heavily tipped to be the top contenders in MLS for the 2018 season.
But realistically speaking, since this league is based so much on parity, anything can happen. The “Leicester City Story” isn’t as much of an anomaly as it was in England. Take Colorado Rapids in 2016 and Chicago Fire in 2017 for example. But out of all the MLS teams, Atlanta United are looking like the biggest challenges for the Supporters’ Shield this season, according to many people.
Atlanta proved themselves to be one of the best expansion teams in MLS history, finishing fourth in the Supporters’ Shield standings in 2017. They are possibly just behind the Chicago Fire expansion franchise of 1998, where they won both the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup in their inaugural year. But let’s be honest here, MLS and American soccer, in general, has improved a lot since then.
Atlanta was known last year for their eye-catching attacking playing style brought by former Barcelona manager, Gerardo Martino. Their attack was led by young South American players such as Josef Martinez, Miguel Almirón, and Héctor Villalba.
Although Atlanta had such a great season last year, they haven’t stopped trying to improve. They have made various signings, most notably Franco Escobar (who replaces Anton Walkes), Ezequiel Barco (who replaces Yamil Asad), and Darlington Nagbe (who replaces Carlos Carmona). Barco’s transfer has by far had the most hype around it, as the 18-year-old, tipped to be the “next Messi,” broke the MLS transfer record, reportedly signing for around $15 million — with additional strings attached.
But despite all these great signings, I’m not sure if they’ll actually improve Atlanta this season. In fact, I think I’ll take the unpopular opinion of saying: their offence and defence will both decline. Why? Well, I think it has to come down to the signing of Barco and Nagbe, and who’ve they replaced.
No doubts, Ezequiel Barco is a great prospect. I believe that calling him the next Messi is a little much. But regardless, he’s still good and could develop to become the best player in MLS eventually. Eventually is the key word there. Although he is already a great winger, can he really fill the boots of Yamil Asad? Asad recorded 7 goals and 13 assists last season in MLS and helped complete Atlanta’s attack.
Barco is an 18-year-old prospect who has a lot of weight on his shoulders. Many MLS fans are acting as if he’s as good as what he may become eventually, as opposed to what level he currently plays at. I think he’ll certainly be good for Atlanta this season, but he may struggle to fit into Atlanta’s squad for a while with all of the pressure around him.
On the other hand, there is Darlington Nagbe. I would say this could be even more problematic than Barco replacing Asad. This is because Nagbe replacing Carmona could change the way the team defends and goes forward. With Carmona and Jeff Larentowicz both in the middle of the park in 2017, they would win the ball and then pass it forward for Atlanta to counter-attack. Counter-attacking was their main attack strategy last year.
But with Nagbe, he will run all over the pitch, mainly in the offensive end just to contribute to a goal or to score a goal himself. Although this is generally good, this could also hurt Atlanta’s attack as they have very few people to win the ball in the middle of the park, to start attacking plays in the first place. So they could struggle to counter-attack and defend possibly because of Nagbe playing in the midfield.
Another problem that could arise later in the season is the possibility of Miguel Almiron leaving. Atlanta looked like a top team in MLS last season when he was playing, but didn’t look nearly as good when he was gone.
Besides the aspect of signings and departures, Atlanta United face many other problems that arise from such a successful expansion season. These 2 points could prove to be difference-makers down the course of Atlanta’s campaign.
Similar to Toronto FC, Atlanta United will face immense pressure this season to perform. Last season, everyone expected them to be good, but to be nowhere as close to as good as they panned out to be. Although they had a lot of hype leading up to the season, similar to LAFC now, most people expected them to face the regular expansion side problems and tumble down the standings as a result.
But this did not happen. Finishing fourth place in Atlanta United’s first season in MLS will add a lot of pressure onto a fairly young group of players, which could lead to some problems this season. This could result in more “surprise” results where the Atlanta players do not perform because we know what happens when a lot of young players and pressure are mixed together, don’t we?
As an additional point, now that Atlanta’s inaugural season wrapped up a fair bit ago, teams have had a lot of time to study how they play. A lot of Atlanta United’s initial upsets may have come partially due to teams simply not understanding how they play and how to defend their fast, attacking style. But opponents now know how they play, so they will come more prepared for Atlanta United when they play them.
But regardless of all this talk, it’s time to see who will be the contenders in 2018 for the MLS Supporters’ Shield. Will another team win, or will Toronto FC be title defenders?