Atlanta United pulled off the improbable feat of building a powerhouse and eventual champion in just two seasons and will now look to deliver an even more impressive encore.
Gone are the team's mastermind head coach, Gerardo "Tata" Martino, and leading playmaker, Miguel Almiron, but Atlanta United still boasts the kind of firepower to deliver another championship to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Frank De Boer has arrived to take charge and the Dutch manager will look to put his own stamp on the team's style, which should put more emphasis on possession while maintaining elements of the high-flying attack that won the league title in 2018.
With the arrival of Gonzalo "Pity" Martinez, Atlanta United has the firepower to not only make another deep playoff run, but to also challenge to become the first MLS team to win the Concacaf Champions League.
How did Atlanta United perform in 2018?
2018 finish: Second in the Eastern Conference (21-7-6), won MLS Cup title.
Atlanta United tied the previous MLS record for points in a season with 69, but finished second to the New York Red Bulls (71) in the race for the Supporters' Shield. Martino's tactical adjustments saw Atlanta solidify its defense, helping give the Five Stripes the balance they needed to roll through the Eastern Conference playoffs. They capped their strong post-season run with a win over the Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup final.
Atlanta United's key offseason losses
Miguel Almiron's record-setting transfer to Newcastle United was not a surprise, as the Paraguayan playmaker's departure seemed a foregone conclusion for some time. His two-year stint with Atlanta United saw Almiron develop into one of the very best players in MLS and arguably Atlanta's most important player.
Greg Garza missed a chunk of the 2018 season through injury but was back in the lineup for Atlanta United's run through the playoffs, showing his quality as a left back and left wingback. His departure to FC Cincinnati clears the way for young academy product George Bello to challenge for a starting role.
The Five Stripes bid farewell to veteran defender Chris McCann, as well as Sal Zizzo and Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu. Back-up goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt was also not brought back.
A potential big loss looms in the form of midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who has reportedly pushed for a trade to the Columbus Crew to reunite with his former college and pro coach Caleb Porter. If Atlanta deals Nagbe, it will leave a big void in the Five Stripes midfield.
Atlanta United's key offseason additions
How do you offset the departure of the most dangerous playmaker in MLS? You bring in the newly-crowned South American Player of the Year. "Pity" Martinez isn't exactly the same kind of player as Almiron, but his quality in attack could make him just as dangerous in MLS. More a left winger than central playmaker, Martinez has the versatility to play in any attacking midfield role, but seems likely to be deployed on the flank as a winger or wide forward.
Brek Shea's arrival raised some eyebrows, but he joins the champions at a discount price and has the versatility to play anywhere on the left. The former U.S. national team winger will have a chance to revive his career and benefit from playing in the most talented MLS lineup he's ever been a part of.
Florentin Pogba, brother of World Cup-winning Manchester United star Paul Pogba, joins to help give the Atlanta United defense some depth. He is a left-footed central defender who can play left-back if needed, though the team's wealth of fullback options should keep him in the middle.
Teenage winger Dion Pereira joined the Five Stripes from England while 2019 MLS draft picks Anderson Asiedu and Amir Bashti are in camp looking to grab one of the final roster spots.
Full Atlanta United roster entering 2019 season
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan, Alec Cann, Brendan Moore
Defenders: Mikey Ambrose, George Bello, Franco Escobar, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Jose Hernandez, Michael Parkhurst, Florentin Pogba, Miles Robinson, Brek Shea
Midfielders: Ezequiel Barco, Andrew Carleton, Chris Goslin, Julian Gressel, Kevin Kratz, Jeff Larentowicz, Gonzalo "Pity" Martinez, Darlington Nagbe, Eric Remedi
Forwards: Jon Gallagher, Lagos Kunga, Josef Martinez, Brandon Vasquez, Hector Villalba, Gordon Wild, Romario Williams, Patrick Okonkwo, Dion Pereira
Atlanta United's projected starting lineup
De Boer has a wealth of options, both in terms of the tactical systems he can deploy and the personnel he can turn to. He has the players to operate either in a three center-back system or a traditional four-man defense. Early signs suggest he could lean on the 5-4-1 system we saw from the Five Stripes a fair amount down the stretch in 2018, with Julian Gressel and Brek Shea operating as the wing-backs and the veteran central defensive trio of Parkhurst, Gonzalez Pirez and Larentowicz holding things down in the middle.
Franco Escobar is currently injured, but once he returns he'll be fighting for a place in the lineup. His return could allow for Gressel to play in a central midfield role, particularly if Nagbe does wind up leaving Atlanta. Larentowicz is also capable of a shift into a defensive midfield spot, which could open the door for Miles Robinson to break through as a starter.
In the attack, the big question is whether Ezequiel Barco is ready to show the quality Atlanta United expected when it made him a multi-million dollar acquisition. He had a largely disappointing 2018, but he just might be the most natural replacement for Almiron in a central playmaker role. If he continues to struggle, then Hector Villalba is a good bet to regain a starting role.
Atlanta United's national TV coverage
- D.C. United vs. Atlanta United - Sunday, March 3, at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN
- Atlanta United vs. FC Cincinnati - Sunday, March 10, at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN
- Atlanta United vs. FC Dallas - Saturday, April 20, at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN
- Sporting Kansas City vs. Atlanta United - Sunday, May 5, at 9 p.m. ET on FS1
- Atlanta United vs. Orlando City - Sunday, May 12, at 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX
- New York Red Bulls vs. Atlanta United - Sunday, May 19, at 5 p.m. ET on FS1
- Real Salt Lake vs. Atlanta United - Friday, May 24, at 9 p.m. ET on UniMas
- Atlanta United vs. Chicago Fire - Saturday, June 1, at 6 p.m. ET on UniMas
- Atlanta United vs. New York Red Bulls - Sunday, July 7, at 2 p.m. ET on FOX
- Seattle Sounders vs. Atlanta United - Sunday, July 14, at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN
- Atlanta United vs. D.C. United - Sunday, July 21, at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN
- Los Angeles FC vs. Atlanta United - Sunday, July 27, at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN
- Atlanta United vs. LA Galaxy - Saturday, August 3, at 5 p.m. ET on FOX
- Atlanta United vs. New York City FC - Sunday, August 11, at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN
- Portland Timbers vs. Atlanta United - Sunday, August 18, at 10 p.m. ET on FS1
- Orlando City vs. Atlanta United - Friday, August 23, at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN
- Atlanta United vs. San Jose Earthquakes - Saturday, September 21, at 3:30 p.m. ET on Univision