Atlanta United became the first MLS expansion team since Seattle in 2009 to qualify for the playoffs in its inaugural season.
The Five Stripes, as the team was nicknamed because of its red-and-black striped home jersey, played an attacking brand of soccer under manager Gerardo Martino that resulted in 70 goals, second most in the league, and packed stands at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium and then at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Two of the starters from that squad, defensive midfielder Carlos Carmona and left midfielder Yamil Asad, didn’t return.
The team re-loaded by acquiring midfielder Darlington Nagbe in a trade with Portland and spending $15 million to acquire the rights to Ezequiel Barco from Independiente in Argentina. It also signed fullback Greg Garza on a permanent deal, re-signed midfielder/centerback Jeff Larentowicz and selected two more players in forward Jon Gallagher and midfielder Oliver Shannon in the SuperDraft who could see minutes off the bench.
The team’s goal is the MLS Cup.
Here are five keys to the season, which starts on March 3 at Houston.
1. Get the big guns going: Atlanta United scored 70 goals last season and 41 were scored by the three Designated Players with Josef Martinez posting 19, Hector Villalba 13 and Miguel Almiron nine.
When they didn’t score, Atlanta United didn’t win.
The team went 0-8-6 in games in which at least one of the three DPs didn’t score.
For the team to improve, Martinez, Almiron, Villalba and Barco will need to put on their scoring boots. They should be helped by the acquisition of Nagbe, who is expected to work with Almiron to pull the strings in the midfield.
2. Keep the big guns healthy: Martinez didn’t appear in 14 games because of injuries last season. The team went 4-4-6 without him.
Almiron missed four games. The team went 1-1-2 without him.
The only game in which neither of them appeared resulted in a 3-2 loss to Minnesota United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Oct. 3.
Villalba appeared in all 34 games. He missed the first three preseason games this season because of a strained abductor.
They weren’t the only key players to either miss games or sustain injuries. Left fullback Greg Garza missed most of September and all of October.
Midfielders Jacob Peterson and Brandon Vazquez missed stretches with injuries.
But keeping the attackers healthy, on the field or at least eligible for the 18, will be key.
3. Develop depth: Martino and the team did many things well last season. One of the things that drew criticism, particularly toward the end of the season when the team played eight games in 24 days, was a lack of developed depth. Even in blowouts, Martino frequently elected to keep key players on until the final whistle, rather than sub them out. Injuries hit during the packed portion of the schedule. Even when the week featured three games, Martino would continue to play the same nucleus.
He explained his reasoning as the team was fighting for a playoff seeding. That is true. The team began its opening homestand at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sept. 10 clinging to the sixth spot after a four-game winless streak. After six home games and a 5-0-1 record, Atlanta United had a chance to secure the second seed.
That achieved goal, on top of the team suffering injuries to key backups near the end of the season, also limited the chances that Martino could use the players had he wanted to.
This season, the team has at least two-deep depth at every position with the possible exception of centerback.
4. No mental lapses: When Atlanta United would score often within a few minutes the opponent would score. This became one of the curious aspects of last season.
It happened twice in the 3-3 draw with Orlando City.
It happened in the 4-2 win against San Jose.
It happened in the 3-2 loss at Miami that knocked the Five Stripes out of the U.S. Open Cup.
There are more examples, but the point is made.
To avoid needing three points in the final game to secure a higher seed, which is the situation Atlanta United was in last season, it needs to avoid dropping points because of mental lapses.
5. Support at home: Atlanta United set several MLS attendance records in its inaugural season, including average (48,200) and single game (71,874).
The players consistently thanked the ticket-buyers for their support throughout the season.
Atlanta United has yet to announce its season-ticket sales for this season, other than to say the team has sold more this season than last season, when it sold around 36,000. The lower bowl capacity for Mercedes-Benz’s soccer configuration is 42,500.
The team will open Mercedes-Benz to its full capacity, a total that is still being determined but is at least 71,874, for four of the 17 home games this season.