2017 was the year that Atlanta United built. For years we looked forward to the club’s inaugural season and it did not disappoint. I thought it would be fun to look back on the year that was and pick 10 different stories that I thought were the most important for the Five Stripes. This list is purely opinionated with the help of the DSS staff. I’ll surely miss something that you think is important. I promise this isn’t a personal attack on your beliefs, I probably just forgot. Anyways, here it goes.
10. The All-Star Game Cometh
Everyone around American soccer took notice of Atlanta’s passionate support throughout the inaugural season. It seemed like there were new articles and thinkpieces every other week about how you guys defied expectations and turned Atlanta into a soccer-mad town.
So, it should come as no surprise that on October 23, Major League Soccer announced that the 2018 All-Star Game will be hosted in The A. Mercedes-Benz Stadium will play host to the league’s top stars who will go up against a presumably popular and talent-laden European powerhouse yet to be determined.
No matter what you think of the All-Star Game itself as an exhibition or a waste of space on the MLS calendar, it’s pretty cool that one of the league’s biggest days will be hosted in Atlanta. It’s another great chance to showcase just how awesome the city is in terms of supporting soccer.
9. The Training Facility Opens
“We never dreamed that we would have anything like this.” — MLS commissioner Don Garber
On April 11, Atlanta United officially opened the doors to its spectacular training facility in Marietta. Sponsored by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the world-class facility cost around $60 million to build and is one of, if not the, preeminent soccer training facilities in the country. The training grounds and team headquarters rival that of what you see the biggest clubs in Europe have.
The facility houses all of the club’s youth teams, hosts the biggest youth tournaments and camps and is home to the first-team’s training sessions and scrimmages.
8. The Billboard
Soccer is a fun sport. But there’s nothing better than when two clubs have some playful banter between one another. That’s what Atlanta United started on July 18 when a Five Stripes-themed billboard randomly showed up in Orlando just days before the team were set to travel to Florida for their first-ever match against their presumed rivals.
spotted in Downtown Orlando. (via Atlanta United fan group on Facebook) @DirtySouthSoc pic.twitter.com/G36lAMnEaV
— Michael Covil (@mcovil_73) July 18, 2017
Honestly, it was a stroke of genius that set the MLS community abuzz for a couple of days and built the anticipation for that first match. The league needs more of this type of stuff to get people talking. Atlanta once again pushed the envelope and produced gold. After two intense matches in 2017, United/City is slowly but surely inching its way to becoming one of the league’s must-see rivalries.
7. Enter Nagbe
How do you follow up one of the best inaugural seasons MLS has ever seen? Well, by going out and improving and re-tooling for an even better second year. That’s exactly what Atlanta’s technical staff had in mind to kick off the offseason as they pulled the trigger on the biggest move in the league so far this winter. On December 13, after a few days of wild rumors and speculation, Atlanta announced it had acquired Darlington Nagbe from the Portland Timbers for what has the potential to be the most expensive inter-league deal in MLS history.
Adding a player of Nagbe’s caliber and experience to a team already packed with talent has Atlanta fans dreaming of the team’s first piece of silverware in the upcoming sophomore season. While there are likely still moves to be made to solidify the 2018 roster, with Nagbe’s addition, it’s hard to see Atlanta United not being considered one of the favorites for next season.
6. Rookie of the Year
What a story Julian Gressel was in 2017. Drafted with Atlanta United’s second-ever SuperDraft pick (No. 8 overall in 2017), Gressel wasn’t rated very highly by draft evaluators. Most mock draft had him going in the teens or twenties. The German-born utility man was pretty much an afterthought heading into the season. Hopes were that he’d earn a spot on the team and maybe be a role player at best.
I don’t think many saw him transforming into a hugely valuable asset for Tata Martino from day one. Gressel earned a spot in the club’s first-ever MLS starting lineup against the New York Red Bulls and never looked back. Five goals, nine assists and invaluable versatility led him to winning the league’s Rookie of the Year award.
The SuperDraft is a crapshoot as far as finding productive MLS players. However, in Atlanta United’s case, they hit the jackpot in drafting Julian Gressel.
5. Josef signs, Josef gets hurt, Josef almost wins the Golden Boot
Any Atlanta United fan will tell you that the team’s most talented player is undoubtedly Miguel Almiron. But, it quickly became apparent that Josef Martinez was their most important player in 2017.
After getting off to a ridiculous five goals in three games start to the season, Atlanta triggered Josef’s option to buy from Torino making him a permanent member of the team for the foreseeable future. As luck would have it, not a week after that announcement, the striker picked up an injury while on international duty with Venezuela.
Initial reports had Josef missing around 10 days of action…three months later and he still had not returned to action. Finally in mid-June he was back…and then out again…and then back again. All-in-all he missed nearly half the season with injuries, only starting in 17 league matches.
Still, after missing all that time, his scoring rampage never stopped. Any time he was on the field he was picking the ball out of the back of the net. His scoring record was so amazing that he challenged for the league’s Golden Boot award up until the final few weeks of the season. His 19 total goals was good enough for fourth best in the entire league.
It was a frustrating start and stop season for Josef, but it showed just how good he is. Now we just need to get him a season full of health and see what kind of numbers he can produce.
4. Project Lemonade
Panic spread around the Atlanta United fan base in late 2016 when the club announced that construction delays for Mercedes-Benz Stadium would force them to play the opening portion of their inaugural season at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium. A college football stadium for MLS? Eww…
Darren Eales dubbed the endeavor “Project Lemonade” (does that really need explaining?) and the club got to work to make sure that the matchday experience at Bobby Dodd would be something special for the fans. That’s exactly what they did. The logistics of the stadium weren’t ideal, oftentimes causing problems with concessions and lines. However, the atmosphere created by the fans at Bobby Dodd was something to behold.
“Project Lemonade” was such a success that when it came time to leave and move into the ginormous MBS, fans actually worried if the atmosphere could be sustained. Needless to say, the team turned a potentially disastrous situation into a positive.
3. Open Sesame
On September 10, years of waiting finally paid off as Mercedes-Benz Stadium finally played host to an Atlanta United match. The team repaid everyone’s patience with a truly dominant performance against FC Dallas in a 3-0 victory. Over 45,000 people saw Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez notch the first goal in his MLS career and the life of the $1.6 Billion stadium. Josef Martinez and Greg Garza added the cappers on what will be a day that will live in Atlanta history forever.
2. All of the Records
Whether it be MBS or BDS, Atlanta became a soccer paradise in 2017. Atlanta United fans were hungry for the beautiful game from March all the way to November and the statistics prove it. Throughout the year, Atlanta set various league records for attendance.
The single-game MLS record was smashed several times, with the season finale bringing in over 71,000 supporters and breaking almost every record in the book. Over the course of the season, Atlanta’s average attendance was enough to best every non-NFL team, including the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Finally, in the club’s first-ever playoff match, a playoff record-breaking 67,000 people watched a heartbreaking penalty shootout loss to the Columbus Crew and basically stole the show in Extra Time with a spectacular cellphone light display. 2017 was a great year on the field for the Five Stripes, but off the field may have been the bigger story.
1. Atlanta United
This is probably a cop out, but it’s my countdown and I can do whatever I want. For me, Atlanta United itself was not only the biggest story in Major League Soccer in 2017, but one of the biggest in all of world soccer. Started from complete scratch, Atlanta United quickly developed a soccer culture in the deep south that already rivals anywhere in North America.
On the field, Tata Martino and the club’s technical staff delivered on the promise of an exciting, attacking team and then some. Not only was the team fun to watch they were successful in year one, something a lot of expansion teams didn’t achieve.
While the first season didn’t end in glory like we all had hoped, there’s nothing but optimism surrounding this vibrant and booming team heading into year two. Atlanta United were the story of the last year. Hopefully they continue to be for the years to come.
Honorable Mentions: Andrew Carleton’s Atlanta United debut, USL team announced