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MLS Eastern Conference preview: Atlanta United

The expansion team is getting all the attention, but will they actually be any good?

When it comes to the Eastern Conference, one team has made more noise than anyone else this offseason. Chicago made major additions, the Red Bulls suffered some major losses, and D.C. United kept some big names around, but no one in the East garnered the attention that Atlanta United has ahead of their expansion season. Across MLS, they have been the biggest story throughout the offseason.

Naturally there are big names involved. Atlanta secured former Barcelona boss Gerardo "Tata" Martino as their head coach, and they’ve signed Designated Players like pricey young South Americans Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez to go with Premier League veteran Kenwyne Jones. They’ve also sold an amazing number of season tickets, their new stadium looks like it will be a palace, and this is a real life photo of where they conducted their expansion draft:

Last season

Well, there’s nothing much to say here because we’re talking about an expansion team. Atlanta got busy signing Tata Martino and a few players last season, including striker Kenwyne Jones. Those early acquisitions were all loaned out to clubs as varied as the USL’s Charleston Battery, Coventry City in England, and Trinidadian club Central FC.

Projected starting lineup

Atlanta hasn’t played too many preseason games to judge at this point, but 4231 appears to be the plan at this point. However, Martino could shift to a 433, or even something involving a back three or five. This is most likely how they’ll approach things for the time being, though.

Among the questions: who will partner Chilean national team midfielder Carlos Carmona in the engine room (which might come down to style of play as much as quality of player), and - assuming Venezuelan DP Josef Martinez is seen as a winger who can play on either side - which young Argentine will be the winger opposite the former Torino FC man. Hector Villalba is the favorite due to his Young DP status, but he spent months as a reserve on loan with Tijuana, but loan signing Yamil Asad is making a strong case right now to get the job.

Key player: Miguel Almiron

So many big names have been signed by or linked with Atlanta - Andres Guardado, Carlos Vela, Bruno Soriano, and Oscar Romero are just the big names that didn’t pan out - that it feels like ATL signed Almiron for a reported $8.5 million sometime a year or so ago.

It’s actually been just over two months since the Paraguay national team starter was signed, and we’re only a few days past the first clear confirmation as to how Martino plans to use his versatile star midfielder. Almiron has a history of playing as an attack-minded #8 and out wide on the left, but for Atlanta he’s going to be the centerpiece of their midfield.

That’s a major responsibility for a 22 year old coming to a brand new league. We saw with Luciano Acosta last year that even an outstanding player can need a few months and a few formation shifts before they find their place in MLS. Atlanta, though, appears to be all-in on competing straight away, increasing the pressure on Almiron to perform at a very high level starting in March.

Key player, again: Michael Parkhurst

Since we can’t do a key loss, let’s look at a different sort of key acquisition. Parkhurst is the biggest Atlanta acquisition from within MLS (and, along with Tyrone Mears and Alec Kann, one of only three likely starters with MLS experience). He’s been named the club’s captain, and in all likelihood the ATL defense’s success will largely hinge on his organizational ability.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never rated Parkhurst as highly as other MLS observers. He is a good organizer, no doubt, but any attack that forces him to do a chunk of the defending himself - particularly against physical forwards - tends to succeed. Martino’s approach to the game requires center backs that are comfortable on the ball, so Parkhurst makes plenty of sense, but he’s not the kind of center back you field if you want your team to be a lockdown defense. Atlanta’s entire roster-building process has emphasized scoring goals over keeping clean sheets, so he makes sense on a couple different levels.

However, it has to be said that Parkhurst had a miserable 2016 season. Columbus went from MLS Cup finalists to out of the playoffs in an Eastern Conference that only required mere competence to make the postseason (looking at you, specifically, Philly). Aside from Ola Kamara, it was a team-wide problem, but they’d have been able to paper over a lot of cracks if their center back play had not been such a mess. For Atlanta to be anything other than a team that tends to lose 4-3 every week, Parkhurst - at 33, by the way - needs to bounce back in 2017.

Don’t forget about: The youngsters

We’re probably going to see ATL give a fair number of minutes given to some players who can’t legally drink yet. Winger Andrew Carleton is arguably even more hyped at the US under-17 level than Chris Durkin, and while he’s probably fifth in the rotation, he will see real playing time. Meanwhile, US under-20 Brandon Vazquez may actually be the first option off the bench up front, depending on how Martino decides to use Martinez and/or rookie Julian Gressel.

Meanwhile, Harrison Heath (who turns 21 days after the season opener) is entering his third MLS season, and if McCann struggles he could get into the rotation as a defensive midfielder. In the back, #2 overall SuperDraft pick Miles Robinson, despite being just 19, might be the team’s first alternative if Gonzalez Pirez struggles to adapt to MLS. If it’s not Robinson, it might be English loanee Anton Walkes, who is just a year older.

And keep in mind, potential starters like Martinez (23), Villalba (22), and Asad (22) are still pretty young to be first-choice players in MLS. Almiron, as we mentioned, is just 22. Atlanta isn’t going to completely rely on young and young-ish players, but it’s hard to see them being any good without several guys that fit that bill having successful years.

Overall prospects

The hype has been non-stop, which is surely just what ATL wants. However, I can’t get past a defense that features a veteran coming off of a down year (Parkhurst), another veteran who appeared to hit the physical wall last season (Mears), a player who has had a ton of injuries (Greg Garza), and a player with no experience in American soccer (Gonzalez Pirez). There’s no solid, proven depth there either, and until Brad Guzan arrives in the summer they’ll need Alec Kann - who, to use a handy comparison, probably wouldn’t have gotten a contract if he were in D.C. United’s camp - to bail them out. That’s not promising.

On the other hand, getting Carmona in as a non-DP is an outstanding signing (one that, when you factor in the financial side, impresses me more than throwing a ton of money at Almiron), and Atlanta’s attacking talent is unquestionable. They might be good enough going forward, and aggressive enough in their pressure, that they can hide their defense in a lot of games.

Still, that requires a lot of things to go right. Kenwyne Jones needs to stay healthy, and their gaggle of young attackers from CONMEBOL will need to figure out MLS faster than is typically the case. They’re also going to need someone alongside Carmona to have a surprisingly good season. McCann’s pedigree - full-time starter in League One, part-time starter in the Championship, unable to get a single cap for Ireland despite being 29 years old - screams adequate rather than truly good, and yet he seems to be the top choice.

Ultimately, I see Atlanta drawing a lot of praise and attention, but suffering through a couple different 6-8 game winless streaks when the goals dry up. I can’t see them making the playoffs, but I do feel like they’ll have a strong year by expansion team standards.