ATLANTA – When Atlanta United kicked off its inaugural season in 2017, no one had the slightest clue that it would be a historic one – a season in which the team became the first MLS expansion team since Seattle in 2009 to qualify for the playoffs and to set attendance records in the regular season games and postseason.
Even more, the city of Atlanta has embraced the soccer culture, creating an electrifying atmosphere when the team takes the field inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“Unite and Conquer” became more than just a slogan. It became a movement, a force that motivated players and brought a sense of relentless energy and excitement out of fans.
Despite losing to Columbus Crew in penalty kicks in its first playoff game, Carlos Bocanegra, Atlanta United’s vice president and technical director, and head coach Gerardo Martino took that loss as a building block into the offseason to prepare the franchise for year two, one many expect will bring even more expectations, excitement and success.
“The offseason was a little longer than we hoped getting knocked out of the playoffs too early,” Bocanegra said when the Five Stripe began preseason training in January. “Last year, we wanted to come in and be competitive without having to mortgage our future.”
“Thirty guys coming together in a short amount of time, it was a big credit to the staff and players for fighting it through and becoming a team quickly. Then we were able to strengthen in the offseason, and now we want to be in conversation every year to win a championship.”
That is exactly what Bocanegra and Martino did, acquiring midfielders Ezequiel Barco and Darlington Nagbe to bolster an already-talented Atlanta United team looking to further make a name for itself in 2018.
“You always want to improve,” said Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst. “It doesn’t’t matter how you did last year, you want to get better and push the envelope and the staff did that for us.”
The Five Stripes kicked off preseason action against Nashville SC, winning 3-1 in Nashville’s first-ever game. In a match against Columbus Crew just a few short days ago – the same team Atlanta United lost to in the playoffs – Atlanta United suffered a 3-1 loss, mainly coming from solid defense from Columbus Crew but also mistakes by the Five Stripes.
Martino pointed out that it is still early and his players must continue to play together to build a true sense of team chemistry.
“Last preseason, against the same team, the same thing happened to us,” Martino said after Saturday’s loss. “We just need more time together. From my perspective, there were a lot of positive things that we did tonight. There were also some negative things we have to improve on, especially if we’re playing a good team like Columbus. But we’re doing OK.”
With new players and returners adjusting to this year’s team, Martino said it is important that his players took more advantage of their chances to score moving forward, which starts with proper passes and communication made on the field.
“What we should work on is capitalizing on our chances in the final third of the field,” he said. “There were a number of occasions tonight where we got into the final third of the field but we need to work on making the right final pass or the right decision to solve that area.”
Atlanta United will get a chance to make those improvements in its final two preseason games over the next four days when the Five Stripes go on the road to play in the 2018 Carolina Challenge Cup, facing Minnesota United FC Wednesday evening and Charleston Battery Saturday night.
Last season, Atlanta United split the regular season series with Minnesota United FC, winning 6-1 on the road in its second game of the season. The Five Stripes lost at home, 3-2. Charleston Battery plays in the United Soccer League and is the host team for the Carolina Challenge.
Atlanta United will begin regular season action Sunday, March 3, on the road against Houston Dynamo before returning to play its home opener the following week against D.C. United.
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