- Doug Roberson The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Gerardo Martino purses his lips and bobs his head backward.
It looks as if someone just asked him why he likes Rosario Central, the rival to his boyhood club Newell’s Old Boys.
This goes on for a few seconds as he starts to shake his head no. He stops. And then starts again.
Finally, he answers the question: Atlanta United’s goal before the season was to make the playoffs. Now that the team is in the playoffs – hosting Columbus on Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium --- if they don’t win will the team’s inaugural season still be considered a success?
“I would love to say yes, but even I don’t believe that,” the Atlanta United manager said.
That may be how high the bar has been raised for the team owned by Arthur Blank, who set the expectations when the franchise was announced April 17, 2014 and he pledged to commit whatever resources necessary to make the team successful on the field and the community.
That’s why all the attendance records, all the exciting moments, all the merchandise sold, all the hype of it being the most successful launch of any pro sports team, all the words written and spoken by journalists, pundits and analysts in so many mediums and so many outlets for so long just won’t mean as much if the team can’t beat the Crew in a winner-moves-on scenario at 7 p.m. Thursday.
“When you think about who labels success or non-success there are two groups of people: there are the players and coaching staff, and there’s everybody else,” Atlanta United midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said. “I’m only in one of those groups. For us, doing what we’ve done so far is kind of the first step. The goal is to advance. The goal is to make the playoffs and re-assess. With a home game, where we are and how we feel, we should continue on in the playoffs.”
It’s been a long 21 months since the team announced its first player acquisition, goalkeeper Alex Tambakis, on Jan. 25, 2016.
So much happened in between that bit of history and when Tambakis, the coaching staff led by Martino and the rest of the roster, which was still being constructed, met in Bradenton, Fla. at IMG Academy for its first training camp in January.
Every addition, from the first designated player, Hector Villalba, to the last, Josef Martinez, added a bit more volume to the hype.
It became obvious that something special may be in store in the inaugural game March 5 against the New York Red Bulls. It wasn’t just that the game was sold out with more than 55,000 people on hand. It was that most of those people were wearing either the red-and-black home jersey, which led to the nickname Five Stripes, or the gray away jersey. They were emotionally and financially invested.
The fans stood. The fans chanted. The fans roared when Yamil Asad scored the first goal.
Atlanta United was beaten 2-1.
They posted more wins than losses since, clinching a playoff spot with a win against Philadelphia on Sept. 27.
The team have set and re-set attendance records. It scored the second-most goals in the league and had the second-biggest goal difference.
If not for a world-class free-kick by Sebastian Giovinco that tied Sunday’s score against Toronto at 2-2, Atlanta United wouldn’t even be playing Thursday. It would have earned the second seed and would be watching Wednesday’s and Thursday’s games to see who it would play Monday or Tuesday.
But the season – and the next step in determining success – comes down to hosting Columbus on Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“The team that we’ve assembled, the way we’ve played, to earn a home game, I just think that we have higher goals now,” team captain Michael Parkhurst said. “I know we don’t have much playoff experience. We want to gain it quickly and we want to advance. If we didn’t, everyone within the team would be extremely disappointed. Sure, there might be success off the field and attendance, everything else, but on the field we would all be disappointed.”