It was a big week for Atlanta United. All your major domestic soccer power rankings – including the one issued by MLS itself – had promoted the second-year club to No. 1.
They grow up so fast, don’t they?
Excitement coursed through Atlanta United’s fancy Marietta training facility (there’s a fountain and everything).
Just ask team captain Michael Parkhurst how jacked he was.
“Not very,” he said.
Oh. As we continue our soccer voyage of discovery, we learn that this sport operates under very much the same set of clichés as any of the more familiar games. Chief among those is the whole taking-it-one-game-(match)-at-a-time saw.
It’s April of an MLS season that grinds through October. Just seven games in – even as Atlanta United has avoided losing the past six of those, outscoring its opponents 17-4 over that streak – it is useful to note that this season is barely out of the package.
Thus, the captain plays the role of sharp object in a roomful of party balloons.
“You want to keep it in perspective,” Parkhurst said. “Yeah, we’re excited about the start of the season, especially coming off that loss (vs. Houston, to begin the season). It has been a good run of games since. Life is always good when you’re winning games. The locker room is nice to be around, the vibe is positive and the mood is good. It’s important to enjoy it when it’s like that because there will be a period or periods during the season when it’s not quite as joyous.”
All heads can still fit through the locker room door, he reports:
“I don’t think any of us are feeling we’re shoo-ins for a playoff, or we’re shoo-ins fighting for the Supporter Shield (given to the league’s best in points). We know that we’re capable, but there are many games and many months left.”
Manager Tata Martino declared that United just had the best home (2-2 draw to New York) and road (2-0 over Los Angeles) performance of its brief history. Yet, this is like the jock who peaks in high school. It is too early to really matter.
Being the best in April is nice. But this is only the trailer to the movie, the dedication to the novel.
Parkhurst, for one, is more interested in seeing how his team responds to Saturday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz
Stadium, against an opponent ripe for the beating.
A truly good team doesn’t play around with its inferiors (listen up, Braves, up in Cincinnati).
“Are we able to bring that same intensity, same focus for 90 minutes and bury a team that we should bury?” he asked. This opponent, Montreal, has yielded the most goals in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta United has scored the most goals in the conference. Run that algorithm.
“I don’t hang my hat on one game. But if we start to do it consistently over long periods of time, that’s when you know, OK, we have something special,” Parkhurst said.
Last April, everything good this new team did was a revelation. Any success was a daily amazement. Only when it was all done did anyone really notice that it didn’t quite win enough on the road to give itself any kind of postseason advantage.
The expectations have all changed, upgraded suddenly and dramatically. And none of them can be met in the spring, at home or on the road.
“We’ve come to a point of, all right, where can we take this thing, how good can we be?” midfielder Julian Gressel said. “If everybody buys into that and everyone is focused on team’s performance and commitment, the sky’s the limit.”
You know, take them one at a time. For a very long time yet.