Atlanta United capped off a historic year with a victory in MLS Cup on Saturday. The team won 2-0 in a dominant performance against the Portland Timbers. In case you haven’t been paying attention to the Five Stripes or are too enamored with watching thrilling European soccer matches between Cardiff and Brighton, the team plays some of the best soccer you could hope to see without having to wake up at 5AM to watch.
For the most part, Atlanta is known for its big name, high dollar, South American players. Josef Martinez set the record for most goals scored in an MLS season and had 35 goals including the playoffs this year. Miguel Almiron finished second in the league’s MVP voting, behind Martinez, and seems to be slated for a transfer to Europe for a fee somewhere near $20-$30 million. Then there’s Ezequiel Barco who was brought in for $15 million, shattering the league’s transfer fee record and Tito Villalba, the team’s first designated player.
While those players grab headlines, key roles of the team were filled out by a core of American players that fit in to the system that Tata Martino devised for the team.
Jeff Larentowicz emerged as a surprising fit for Martino’s system. In the team’s first year, the versatile player lined up alongside Carlos Carmona in midfield and in possession would drop back to almost be a third center back with Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez and Michael Parkhurst to be a passing outlet to cycle the ball back to the attackers with the ball. This season he lined up in midfield in a similar role, but Tata also switched tactics at times in 2018 and set up the veteran as a center back in a 3-5-2 where his defensive skills kept attacking opponents at bay.
Ahead of Larentowicz in 2018 was newcomer Darlington Nagbe. The midfielder has been something of an enigma for fans and coaches named Caleb Porter alike - he’s very skillful, but what’s his best role on the field? It turns out that the answer is not attacking winger - in Atlanta Tata Martino put Nagbe where he should have been all along, in central midfield. This was his best season in MLS and as a player who could keep possession either by passing out of danger, or at times dribbling through two or three defenders, Nagbe was critical for the success that the Five Stripes had in 2018. He missed significant time with an injury suffered in May, but his ability to set the tempo and move the ball upfield for the attackers was invaluable.
A player who has been somewhat snakebit in his career due to injuries suffered at inopportune times, Greg Garza plays a key role for United at left back. In 2017, Garza, Almiron, and Yamil Asad created an attacking trio that raged on the left side of the pitch, the three would break upfield in transition and create chance after chance much to the dismay of defenses across the league. With Asad in DC in 2018, Garza lost the player he would connect with most on the pitch, but his speed, fearlessness, and underrated footwork helped set up passes to Almirion and Julian Gressel to find Martinez time after time in 2018. As a bilingual player, Garza also helped forge a connection between the Spanish and English speakers on the squad as he jumpstarted his career with a new opportunity in Atlanta.
In goal, Brad Guzan showed why he continues to be in the picture for the National Team both as a skillful keeper and as a veteran leader. For a team that relies on playing out of the back as a preferred tactic, play often started with Guzan and his decision making in finding the right pass to start attacking sequences was crucial when the team had possession. As a shot blocker, Guzan has few peers in MLS and is easily a top five keeper in the league. His size, strength, and ability in the air made him a force in net for Atlanta, and as the team dominated at home, allowing just 19 goals in 17 regular season games, plus just one goal in three post-season matches, Guzan’s influence on the team is clear in box scores as well. What’s less clear is his ability to organize the defense, Guzan is one of the most vocal keepers around and his communication with the backline is key for when the Atlanta attack gives up a turnover that leads to a potential chance for the opposition.
Finally, there’s the team’s captain - Michael Parkhurst. The center back was highly regarded by Tata Martino, the Argentine traded for Parkhurst before the expansion season in 2017 and he was named captain prior to the season. As a veteran player who knew the league, Parkhurst helped set the tone for the team in its first season as new players grew accustomed to such unique challenges as flying in coach, playing at altitude, and the deafening silence of Gillette Stadium. On the field, the center back excelled at being an outlet for Guzan, partnering with the sometimes adventurous Gonzalez-Pirez, and using positioning and reading the game to defend bigger and faster attackers. Somehow, a player of Parkhurst’s caliber that so impressed the former Argentina National Team manager that he specifically brought him into the team, hasn’t been called into a USMNT squad since 2014.
Atlanta plays a high tempo game. Alternating between pressing, when the opposition dares to try to play a possession based approach, to breaking teams down through possession or forcing turnovers and then springing forward in transition, the team’s tactics are more advanced that what typical MLS teams have tried in the league. The style demands players who are quick passing, good with the ball at their feet, quick thinking, and versatile - traits that American players have been criticized as lacking in the past. Yet, these players showed that Yanks can play attractive soccer - of course, with a manager who can implement these tactics.
This isn’t something that is going away either. Even with Tata Martino set to depart for El Tri, Darren Eales wants the team to play high-tempo attacking soccer. And despite the fact that Parkhurst and Larentowicz are in the twilight of their careers, Atlanta is one of the MLS teams that is most committed to building through its academy. The club already gave Andrew Carleton and George Bello their professional debuts and it’s conceivable that as more young talent emerges, the team could join the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas in developing academy players for the league and National Team for years to come.