Just under a month ago, Atlanta United was in the middle of run that could well have derailed its season. Now, the club looks ready to make a deep playoff push.
The August schedule saw the club pick up just two points from three matches away from home, losing to D.C. United and having to come from behind to pick up a 2-2 draw with the Philadelphia Union in the final two matches of that road swing.
"We played badly," Miguel Almiron told Goal after the draw with the Union. "We didn't come in off a good game, that's the reality, and we have to accept that. We can't lie to ourselves. We have to improve a lot if we're going to achieve something special. I think we have to improve in a lot of ways. We have the team, the group, the players, to be better."
A schedule back-loaded with home matches against struggling teams and the opening of the club's new home ground — the stunning Mercedes-Benz Stadium — has seen Atlanta respond with a run of form that has the side back in the running for a first-round playoff bye.
A 3-0 win over FC Dallas righted the ship and was followed by a 7-0 smashing of the New England Revolution. Even a 3-3 draw with Orlando City in the third match of a six-game run at home was cause for some celebration, with the club coming from behind on three separate occasions to claim a point. A 4-0 dismantling of the disjointed LA Galaxy on Wednesday moved Atlanta all the way to fourth place in the Eastern Conference, and has the club looking like a real playoff threat.
Josef Martinez is back on form and with a supporting cast of Hector Villalba, Almiron and Yamil Asad, the team offers a level of quality and creativity in the final third that won't be easily matched by many MLS teams. Asad proved particularly dangerous against the Galaxy, scoring twice and setting up Martinez for the opener, but the reality is that Atlanta has the ability to hurt and threaten a defense from anywhere.
So far the crowds at the team's new home have been witness to 17 goals in four matches, and that total will almost certainly climb before the team hits the road again. The club welcomes the Montreal Impact, who had allowed 49 goals in 29 matches after Wednesday's games, and the Union, who have shipped 39 goals in 29 games, in the last two matches of their home stand.
With just six matches remaining in the regular season, and with four of those at home, a second-place finish in the Eastern Conference is still well within reach for Martino's men, who have now gone 10 matches without a loss in Atlanta.
A run to the MLS Cup title still feels like a long shot for the expansion outfit. Toronto FC, despite a 5-3 loss to the Impact on Wednesday, is still the clear favorite and the best team in the league and New York City FC holds a five-point lead over Atlanta for the second spot in the East as well. There is also an argument to be made that the club's recent surge has been as much about poor opposition as it has as been about an unstoppable Atlanta side.
But there is reason to believe that this first-year outfit is ready to challenge the best the league has to offer, and that's all the record crowds in Atlanta could ask for.