Atlanta United's championship season sets lofty new standard for MLS

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Kevin C. Cox
Bolstered by a top-notch owner, Atlanta showed with its title-winning run what MLS teams can, and should, aspire to be

Atlanta United's tradition of having celebrities hammer a ceremonial golden spike raised an interesting question before Saturday's MLS Cup final. Which Atlanta celebrity would be called on to wield the hammer and spark the celebration on the biggest night in the team's brief history? 

The club ultimately made the perfect choice, handing the oversized hammer to owner Arthur Blank, who enthusiastically drove that golden spike, setting the tone for a night Atlanta won't forget, and one that provided the perfect ending to a season that has set a new standard for Major League Soccer. 

The second-year club didn't just cap a special season with a dominant performance in Saturday's 2-0 MLS Cup final victory over the Portland Timbers . Atlanta United put on a show to remember, with 73,019 packing Mercedes-Benz Stadium and creating an atmosphere perfectly-suited for the coronation Saturday's final became

Atlanta is the perfect example of what is possible for MLS teams in this new era, MLS 3.0 as it is often called. You need an owner with deep pockets and the commitment to spend as well as the savvy to hire smart soccer people to build and operate the team. Then it's up to those soccer people to take those resources and sign difference-makers like Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron, but also make smart acquisitions like Michael Parkhurst and Julian Gressel. 

Off the field, Atlanta United has succeeded in establishing a connection with the city it calls home. The city that has never been considered a great sports town and has endured its share of pro sports heartache. Atlanta United's ability to build an exciting, entertaining team, while also successfully engaging a community with so much potential, has been the perfect recipe for success. 

And no, it isn't as simple as Atlanta United spent tons of money to build a winner. There are plenty of teams that have splashed millions of dollars on rosters that never won a title or came close to building the kind of team Atlanta has managed to put togehter in just two seasons. 

MLS commissioner Don Garber must be thrilled at Atlanta United's achievement, because as MLS pushes to find new expansion markets to join league, Garber can point to what Blank and his club have done as the model for what is possible if you have ambitious, aggressive and smart ownership.

"At the end of the day, he’s the fundamental reason that we’re lifting a trophy today," Atlanta United president Darren Eales said of Blank. "Because his commitment to the city and the credibility gave us that early impulse in terms of fans that bought in because they knew it was going to be credible. 

"I remember meeting him for the first time and my question is, is this an owner that’s really committed to soccer or is he just trying to fill the stadium that he’s building? And right from day one I knew he was ultra-serious in terms of what he wanted to do. And look, he brought me in with almost two and a half years to plan for it, so of course that runway really helped us take our time and put together the various pieces. Arthur’s support and mentorship is really the reason we’re here today celebrating."

Atlanta's success should also send a clear message to the rest of the league that winning an MLS Cup is a tougher proposition now and will require more of a financial commitment than ever before. 

Josef Martinez Atlanta United MLS Cup final 2018

As much as MLS is still a single-entity league, its roster and salary rules have created enough room to let ambitious owners flex their financial muscle, and the trend toward big-spending teams winning didn't start with Atlanta United. Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders played each other in the previous two finals, and both clubs were aggressive in building their rosters. The days of club being able to build winning teams by spending modestly are starting to fade. 

That isn't a bad thing for MLS. The more ambitious and big-spending owners the league has, the better the league will be. That doesn't mean we are going to see the financial shackles fall off completely, or that the league's salary cap is going to be blown wide open, but the success of a team like Atlanta United, as well as first-year club Los Angeles FC, should convince more and more teams to commit to spending and helping raise the overall quality of the league. 

Atlanta United has succeeded in doing that because the Five Stripes did everything at full tilt. Have an owner willing to spend whatever it takes to build a winner? Check. Go all out to buy top-level international talent? Check. Recruit and hire an international caliber manager with a top-level resume? Check. 

Brad Guzan Atlanta United MLS Cup final 2018

Hire front office people who really know MLS and American soccer? Build a team that plays the kind of entertaining, attacking soccer that can captivate a city and winner over both casual and die-hard soccer fans? Build an academy that can not only develop talent, but further cultivate a connection to the home market? Check, check and check.  

"It just took the right combination of city, of venue, of training ground, of players most importantly," Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. "And it all started with the vision from Arthur. He’s the man behind all of this. He thought that it could prevail: this sport, a team in this city. And it all started with a belief."

The challenge now for Atlanta United will be maintaining that level of success. It won’t be easy, as Toronto FC can attest. Gerardo “Tata" Martino is leaving, and Miguel Almiron is a good bet to leave this winter as well. The club must find a new head coach capable of maintaining the standard Martino set, and a new playmaker must step into the big shoes left by Almiron, one of the most exciting young players to ever pass through MLS. 

What happens next for Atlanta United remains to be seen, but what can't be taken away now is the championship the club delivered to a city that fell in love with its new soccer team and experience that surely hooked many of the 73,019 in attendance into being long-term fans. Those fans are in love with a team that plays beautiful soccer, and an owner who did everything it took to build a winner and help set a new standard for MLS.

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