Defense wins championships.
I’m not sure who said it first. It might have been Lombardi. It might have been Heisman. Hell, it might have been King Leonidas I during the Battle of Thermopylae. All we know is that it matters and it’s the final key to redefining how MLS franchises are built.
Want more proof? Go watch MLS Cup from December. While playoff ties often have their moments of craziness thanks to the structure of the playoff system, one-off matches frequently involve sitting back and waiting to strike as opposed to invading the attacking third with reckless abandon.
With all of the excitement made about Atlanta United’s attack and midfield, there were many questions about how the team would build defense. Whether Atlanta would dedicate the resources to MLS veterans, or continue to skew the team younger.
No matter what, Atlanta had a blueprint on how not to do thing based on the last two expansion franchises:
2015 New York City FC: 58 goals against
2015 Orlando City: 56 goals against
Those were tied for the most and second-most goals given up in the league that season, respectively. Both teams missed the playoffs in their inaugural year.
For a few months, it felt like Atlanta was leaving the defense to the last minute aside from the acquisition of Chris McCann. They had a defensive midfielder, but aside from that, jokes about the team running a 0-1-8-1 hit a bit too close to home.
Suddenly the team started adding bits and pieces to the defense. Activity started with the addition of a veteran anchor, followed by a flurry of moves (including holding another team’s keeper hostage after the expansion draft.) As it stands Atlanta has at least six dedicated defenders, many of whom can move around the back line as needed, a staple in Martino’s style.
The last few days have seen Atlanta’s expected relationship with London’s Tottenham Hotspur provide a young defender on loan, the acquisition of another MLS veteran on the right and another product of the Tata Martino effect and his influence in South America. Add in the drafting of the consensus top defender in the draft and inviting academy prospects to first team training and Atlanta looks like a team with stability now and going forward on the back line.
The building process has looked a bit different than the lethal star-studded, DP-heavy attack that Atlanta expects to show off, but they look to have a solid backline ranging in skills, age, and experience to protect what has become a very unique situation in goal.
With the confirmed arrival of Brad Guzan in the summer, Atlanta has opened up the job in goal to Alec Kann and Alex Tambakis, both of whom have shown the talent to succeed in MLS but lack experience that you’d want to see with an expansion franchise… especially while trying to let a new back four develop the chemistry to survive what is expected to be a very trying first half of the season.
Orlando and NYCFC struggled with consistency in the back in their first season and at times their rosters felt incomplete when it came to competing with the rest of the MLS on a day-to-day basis. Even in their second year, both clubs had their hiccups and it’s safe to argue that Orlando’s defense kept them out of the playoff picture in 2016.
It’s easy to suggest that Atlanta learn from other organizations’ mistakes, but chemistry and communication in a very fluid situation will be key to letting Atlanta develop and turn heads on the field as frequently as they’ve turned them off the field.
The talk of Atlanta ushering in MLS 3.0 is nice, but it won’t be accurate unless the defense is able to surpass previous franchises’ inaugural seasons. If Martino unlocks this team’s potential however, first year hardware is a very realistic goal.