Here are 12 moments that shaped Atlanta United’s season, which will continue Thursday against Columbus in the first round of the MLS playoffs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium:
The atmosphere. Walking to Bobby Dodd Stadium for Atlanta United’s first game, it was difficult not to be struck by how emotionally invested the team’s supporters were in the club. The tailgating area near The Varsity was packed with fans sporting the team’s home jersey dominated by the five stripes of alternating red and black or the away jersey affectionately described as featuring concrete gray and taillight red. When Yamil Asad scored his first goal, the more than 50,000 people in the stadium erupted with a cheer that came from years of waiting for a first-division soccer club.
The snow game. Not only was defeating Minnesota United 6-1 the first win for Atlanta United, it also signaled that the Five Stripes were going to score ... a lot. Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba and Asad split the Loons’ lines time and time again, even though they were playing in a snowstorm that reduced visibility to near nothing by the start of the second half.
The injury. This didn’t happen during an Atlanta United game, but Martinez’s injury sustained while playing with Venezuela certainly affected Atlanta United’s season. The striker missed 10 consecutive games, during which the team was 3-4-3.
The two big ties. The team started 2-1-0 with big wins at Minnesota United and at home against Chicago, but its first two tests would come in its next two games: at Seattle and at Toronto. Playing without Martinez because of his injury, the Five Stripes managed to tie the defending champs 0-0 and the Eastern Conference champs 2-2. It was a signal that the team should at least challenge for a playoff spot.
The surprising loss. After four consecutive road games in which it was a respectable 1-1-2, Atlanta United returned home and figured to have three easy points lined up with D.C. United. Things didn’t quite work out. Despite peppering the goal in the first 15 minutes, Atlanta United was beaten 3-1. Two more games against D.C. United resulted in two more losses and nine precious points dropped. Those proved pivotal in the chase for the highest possible seed.
Martinez returns. Back in the starting lineup since suffering his injury, Martinez scored for the second time since his injury to secure three points against a struggling Colorado squad. Martinez celebrated by walking to the Atlanta United supporter’s section and staring into the crowd as a thanks for their support.
Late rallies. Atlanta United’s first game against Orlando City was memorable for a lot of reasons: the budding rivalry, the billboard bought by Atlanta United in downtown Orlando that taunted the Lions, the expletive-filled chants that Orlando City’s supporters recited over and over again and could be heard on the TV broadcast and, lastly, Hector Villalba’s stunning strike to win the game in the final minutes. The two teams would play again a week later and Villalba scored in stoppage time to secure a draw. A week later, Atlanta United did it again when Jacob Peterson scored a goal in stoppage time to secure a 1-1 draw at Sporting KC.
Opening the Benz. Six months past when it was expected to open, Mercedes-Benz Stadium welcomed Atlanta United on Sept. 10. The Five Stripes blitzed Dallas 3-0 by using the larger field to take advantage of their speed.
The big win. The team followed that victory by destroying New England, which was fighting for a playoff spot, 7-0. It was the most goals scored in a game by an expansion team, matched the largest margin of victory in an MLS game and was the first time in league history that a team was held without a shot.
The big crowd. Atlanta United followed the record set against New England by setting a record for the largest crowd in MLS history in a 3-3 draw with Orlando City three days later. The team reported 70,425 tickets sold, breaking the previous mark breaking the previous single-game record of 69,255 set in 1996 at the Rose Bowl in a game between the L.A. Galaxy and N.Y./N.J. MetroStars.
The playoff clincher. Atlanta United’s management and players made no secret throughout the season of saying that they wanted to become the first MLS expansion team since Seattle in 2009 to make the playoffs. They achieved that goal with a victory over Philadelphia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The free kick. Atlanta United seemed poised to ascend to the East’s second seed, which would come with a bye in the first round of the playoffs, when Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco stepped up to take a free kick in the 84th minute with his team trailing 2-1. The right-footed effort from 25 yards out touched the underside of the crossbar and settled into the net. It was a perfect free kick and pushed Atlanta United from second into fourth, setting up Thursday’s knockout round game against Columbus.