The final games of Year 1 in SunTrust Park will be staged this week. The rest of the Battery should be completed by the time Ronald Acuna takes ownership of right field. The first NFL regular-season game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium was played Sunday night under, miracle of miracles, an open roof. In the same building one day earlier, Atlanta United set an MLS record with a crowd of 70,425.
And here I ask, gently but firmly: Can we stop the stadium talk?
Don’t get me wrong. The combination of SunTrust Park and the Battery remains a wonder. Mercedes-Benz Stadium is as advertised, which is to say stunning. These are lovely places our teams can proudly call home for at least the next decade. (If I undershoot, it’s because I once averred the Georgia Dome would stand for 50 years. Missed by a half-life.) But we’ve spent the past five years discussing bricks and mortar and cost overruns and traffic flow and parking, and now most everything is in place. We have a nice new reality.
So let’s talk about teams. Let’s talk, you know, actual sports.
Atlanta United’s regular season has seven games to go. It’s in fifth place in the Eastern Conference – six teams make the MLS Cup playoffs – and seven points clear of seventh-place Montreal, which has played one more match. With five of United’s games set for Mercedes-Benz, the team is essentially a postseason lock. It could keep going a while once there.
United is second in the league in goals and goal difference. It has lost once since June and has outscored opponents 16-3 in three matches in MBS. Those are powerful indicators. That said, soccer tournaments are perilous to predict, and the MLS Cup is an especially odd duck. First round is one-and-done. Conference semis and finals are home-and-homes. Final is one-and-done at the home of the team with the better regular-season record.
No matter what happens beyond the regular season – the MLS playoffs take forever; they start Oct. 22 and end Dec. 9 – this has been a splendid rookie season for United. It drew massive crowds to borrowed Bobby Dodd Stadium. Built to play attacking and attractive soccer, it succeeded on both fronts. Its audience doesn’t necessarily dovetail with the Braves/Falcons/Hawks followings, and that’s fine, too. This has been new and different and very good.
The team with which United shares new digs has the potential to be great. The Falcons’ dissection of Green Bay offered everything you’d want – the accustomed offensive variety and verve, the pressure on an increasingly addled Aaron Rodgers, the great Matt Bryant still booting ’em through – and at the end we were treated to a demonstration of game management not seen in the Falcons’ most recent nationally televised game. (Came in February. I forget the opponent.)
After taking a 25-point second-half lead that day in Houston, the Falcons ran the ball four times. After taking a 24-point second-half lead Sunday night, they ran the ball 14 times and bled 13:10 (nearly a quarter!) off the game clock . This game didn’t go to overtime. This game got no closer than 11 points. It would be a surprise if these Falcons score 540 points under Steve Sarkisian, but this was an indication that they don’t need to short-circuit scoreboards. They were outgained (barely) on the night. It mattered not one whit.
Last year’s Falcons were essentially a Kyle Shanahan production, mostly for better but at the bitter end for worse. This team will play better defense. (Desmond Trufant makes a difference, does he not?) This team has the potential to be an actual team. Said Dan Quinn afterward:
“We come to life when there’s different weapons. You never know who's going to be the one. Last week Austin Hooper was the one on offense, and on defense it was Brooks Reed. Tonight it was Trufant and Julio Jones. That’s what this brotherhood is. You never know when it’s going to be your time. You go hard as hell. When your opportunity is there, you’ve got to go for it. We don’t have a way to say what’s going to happen. It’s impossible to predict that, but you can say that when your opportunity comes, you’ve got to go and nail it.”
Even as we stipulate that it’s only two games, we say for the record: Through those two games, these Falcons look fully capable of again playing in February – and holding a lead this time.
As for the Braves: This season fulfilled most requirements. It kept us interested into July. The team wasn’t an embarrassment to Cobb County. It got us one year closer to Acuna, just named the minor league player of the year by Baseball America. This year’s club will fall short of .500. Next year’s might not.
Oh, and there’s one more bit of construction at hand. The Hawks are redoing Philips Arena. They’re also redoing their team, and they surely timed it right. Those “Pardon Our Dust” signs? Not many folks figure to see them.