ATLANTA — It’s a city in love with football — the American kind. The first two events in Mercedes-Benz Stadium were college football games. The college football championship will be decided here in January, a quick walk from the College Football Hall of Fame.
Even so, the new facility where Atlanta United topped FC Dallas 3-0 on Sunday night in the inaugural soccer match at the venue bears few marks it hosts another sport.
The only hints are the seats reminiscent of the logo of the Atlanta Falcons, the NFL team with which the MLS expansion side shares both the stadium and ownership, and the turf field that’s great for American football, less so for soccer. The MLS team that calls the arena home, though, will have something in common with the college football teams that will celebrate their triumphs here. They play fast.
Speed kills. It’s true in American football, and it’s true in soccer. Quickness is what Gerardo “Tata” Martino, the former Argentina and Barcelona boss, has built his team around. That was fully evident in the opening half-hour of Sunday night’s demolition of an FC Dallas team that, while struggling, was made to look like they didn’t belong in the same league.
FCD coach Oscar Pareja said postgame that nearly any criticism could stick after the performance, but one that definitely rings true is that Atlanta was faster.
“They played way quicker,” he said. “I think they controlled the ball in the first touch and the second touch and just getting in behind us, it was clearly faster. It took us 20 minutes, almost, to start just passing and putting our foot on the ball, playing some, gluing some passes (together). At that time, Atlanta was sharp and they just started creating and creating.”
That has been part of the expansion team’s strategy all year. You don’t bring in Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and Yamil Asad to slow things down or to sit back. Atlanta’s second goal came from Asad forcing an error from a defender with pressure, then Atlanta making a pair of crisp passes to set up Martinez for an easy goal.
The challenge may be keeping it up. The stadium’s opening in the final portion of the season means Atlanta has a run of six matches at home in just three weeks. Still, the team has no intention to move away from its breakneck pace.
They may not need to, at least not Wednesday against the New England Revolution. Players were able to rest their legs as the need to keep the press up was alleviated once the scoreline was at 2-0 just 46 minutes into the game.
“We’re going to try to do that,” Martino said of continuing to play with speed. “We’re not thinking about changing anything at all.
“The team has been fast, dynamic, quick to attack all year. But there were two situations we managed well today. One was moving the ball without having to play vertically the whole time. There were times, especially in the second half, where there were long periods of possession when we needed to rest and break up the opponent’s rhythm and we did that really well.
“The other part is that we didn’t have to pressure the opponent the whole game. There was a big portion of the match that we were able to sit back. When players started to get tired and needed a bit of rest we were able to solve that issue by keeping possession and not press for so long.”
Martino’s style of play has been refreshing in a league where technical play hasn’t always been prized. Atlanta enters the home stretch in the final playoff position in the East but can solidify its place with a few more results at home. United has a strong chance to finish as the best expansion side in MLS history, and with its speed, Martino’s tactical acumen and what looks to be a strong home-field advantage, this will be a team coaches are eager to avoid in the postseason.
Even so, the 54-year-old said the league doesn’t need a tactical revolution — nor will he be leading one. Instead, he’s looking at what other teams in the league are doing, with quality coaching staffs leading teams around the league. He was quick to praise Pareja and FCD before and after Sunday’s game, and also has been impressed with teams headed up by Americans.
“I’m very cautious in this respect. To think that it’s just going to be better to bring in coaches from other places … I think the league here has excellent coaches,” he said. “Today I saw the game between Kansas City and Columbus and both teams played really well with similar styles and neither Kansas City or Columbus were able to dominate. I coached in Paraguay and it was the same topic. Do people need to come from outside the country or are those that are inside the country good enough?
“I’m very respectful to the countries that open the door for me to coach in. If there’s something about Atlanta’s game they like and they think can be incorporated into the other teams in the league, that’d be welcome, but I don’t want to put it somewhere I don’t think it needs to be and that’s also not my intention. I’ve come to learn what I can from this area, obviously putting in the type of soccer I like and trying to pick the players who correspond to that.”
He and Atlanta’s front office have done a good job with that. In addition to the fearsome attack, fullbacks Anton Walkes and Greg Garza provide danger going forward to join attacks. Garza scored Sunday and has created more chances than any other defender in the league this season. MLS veteran center back Michael Parkhurst and midfielder Jeff Larentowicz bolster the middle and ground the team. The depth will be tested in this stretch of games, as well as the potential playoff run.
But Martino’s men are getting the job done so far, buying into the coach’s ideas and playing effectively, dynamic and, most importantly, quickly.