Atlanta United’s opening goal against the Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup final was at least two years in the making. It began off an Atlanta turnover with center back Leandro Gonzalez Pires playing an aggressive overlap near the Timbers’ endline, unafraid to lose the ball with several teammates in place to press the ball back. Timbers defender Zarek Valentin won possession and played an outlet ball into forward Jeremy Ebobisse just before the midfield line. Ebobisse receiving the ball back to goal, along with center back partner Pires still high up the field, triggered Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst into pressing and a sliding tackle, creating an opportunity for league MVP Josef Martinez to win a 50-50 on top of the box and round keeper Jeff Attinella for an empty net tap-in. That sequence from Parkhurst tackle to Martinez goal took five seconds, with all 22 players inside the Timbers' half. Sparking euphoria amongst the over-70,000 Atlanta supporters and taking the air out of a potential Timbers upset before halftime, the only surprise at the end of the match was that the two-year-old Atlanta side only won by two goals.
That pressure, verticality, and speed in transition is what Atlanta manager Tata Martino built his reputation upon - and it’s also the same philosophy that drew worldwide attention his way when he oversaw a Barcelona side that had under 50% possession for the first time in five years. But styles define each league, and as the first manager in club history, Martino noted his excitement in building a team “from scratch”. It was a victory in team composition: Parkhurst was the first captain in club history (announced in a tweet, of course). Martinez was signed from Torino as Atlanta’s third designated player, also before the club ever played a match. It was a reminder of how much careful planning off the field goes into creating instinctive, match winning moments on it.
Supporters across the country responded to the atmosphere surrounding the final, as the 1.5 million viewers represented the highest TV rating since at least 1997, and was up 91% from last year’s final. Helped by the blueprint set by Atlanta in how to build a team from nothing, this may be the turning point season for supporters, owners, outsiders, and television audiences in re-framing how MLS doesn’t need to imitate the Premier League. Rather, being itself, with its combination of Bundesliga-style pressing with a South-and-Latin American influence, and a backbone of American development, is more than enough to draw attraction.
From that perspective, the most exciting matchup of what the league currently is and could be more of in the future was the Eastern Conference finals clash between Atlanta and the New York Red Bulls. The two sides, each on the forefront of featuring young, exciting talent with an uptempo style and a progressive manager, found those solution in two different ways. If Atlanta looked at South America for answers, the NYRB, fitting for their name, looked to tactical innovations from their parent clubs in Austria and Germany to help shape their American academy talent so much so that manager Jesse Marsch left the side midseason to become an assistant at RB Leipzig. If we analyze the link between a domestic league influencing the style of the national league, then the USMNT could have traits of a high tempo, pressing, turnover creating machine.
That focus on transitions has seemingly created a relationship between MLS and Bundesliga, and 19-year-old midfielder Tyler Adams noted the similarities between the NYRB and RB Leipzig during his move. And Marsch’s move to Germany, Martino leaving Atlanta to take over Mexico, and Patrick Vieira honing his chops at NYCFC before taking the Nice job shows a changing perception about the quality of MLS managers as well. The finals matchup was also was the first time two South American managers met for the MLS Cup, and Timbers manager Gio Savarese is part of his own important symbolic movement: that of a coach managing their way up from the second division and succeeding at the very top (Savarese managed the NY Cosmos in the NASL for five seasons before taking the Timbers job last year). Taking note of Savarese’s ability to relate with players, the Vancouver Whitecaps hired another manager from the NASL in Marc Dos Santos, who gained his experience with the San Francisco Deltas. It’s this ability for the entire ecosystem of American soccer to produce players and managers throughout each of its ranks that will define the future of the game and how far it can go on the world’s stage.
But MLS now faces a new challenge: is the league becoming be too successful for its own good? There is reportedly a growing division - a tipping point - between two sets of owners in how to capitalize off this current moment. Should the league continue to go on its usual path, or does it need an extra infusion of media attention and cash to fund a more ambitious growth. Perhaps the most important lesson the league learned from Atlanta’s success was the knowledge of how to build another Atlanta in the future. Yet what would MLS lose of its MLS-ness, those singular quirks like TAM, a salary cap, and designated player rules that are unique to the league? Did MLS achieve its growth because of, or in spite of, these artificial guardrails?
Immediately after the final, even before Atlanta’s championship celebration, the moves began.
With the title won on Saturday, Atlanta declined contract options on four players the following Sunday. While Martinez reaffirmed his commitment to the club, Miguel Almiron is expected to move to Europe this offseason. A day after their title parade, Atlanta left back Greg Garza was acquired by the expansion FC Cincinnati. And under the guise of Atlanta’s success, Cincinnati further acquired seven more players in the expansion draft, a poignant reminder that their eventual success, or lack of it, has already begun.
And there was more. Jon Champion was named the play-by-play voice for ESPN. Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen agreed to move to Manchester City when the summer transfer window opens on July 9th. The LA Galaxy hired a new general manager. One could argue that team should hold off on roster announcements at least until the euphoria of title celebration has worn off, but again, that’s just how it is.
We can take note of the many concurrent threads that add up to one MLS in 2018: pressing sides, promising South-and-Latin Americans players and managers moving to America, big names from Europe who finish their careers in the league, second division managers working their way up to the first division, academy players who receive or don’t receive opportunities in the first team, expansion teams making an immediate mark on the league. Then there are more personal reasons why a footballing figure would find the league attractive. Martino said he chose to manage Atlanta for solitude, away from the tension of Europe and South America, where he could go back to living like a normal person.
In watching the Copa Libertadores final the day after the MLS Cup, I was struck how each match was defined by a transitory state. In losing their best playmaker in Almiron, Atlanta United would sign Pity Martinez, River Plate’s best creator. And whether Atlanta, the Timbers, Boca or River, we would never see these teams again in that current state. For MLS, it’s a byproduct of the salary cap forcing teams to renew their squads each season. And whether it was the high pressing style, the 70,000 supporters, or the excitement of watching two young attackers, the disparate parts of the 2018 season that added up to an Atlanta title felt like an achievement both within the league and in defining its place in the European ecosystem. Now is the hard part: to fully embrace what MLS is becoming, or to embark on a new path entirely.