With the first season for 2017 MLS expansion team Atlanta United FC less than seven months away, it seems like a good time to voice my current expectations for the 2017 MLS season. The team has started making some proper player acquisitions. Atlanta has its first Designated Player in winger Héctor Villalba (on loan to Tijuana), a target striker in Kenwyne Jones (on loan to Central F.C.), and the team’s first Homegrown Player in Andrew Carleton (on loan to Charleston Battery). A head coach will presumably be hired before New Year’s, and the rest of the roster will be filled in the preseason transfer window.
Atlanta United has been making some great moves thus far, but the fact remains: MLS expansion teams struggle. New players are not used to travelling vast distances to away games. New teams don’t gain cohesion until halfway through the season. During last year’s 2015 MLS season, the two expansion clubs, Orlando City SC and New York City FC, both failed to make the playoffs. They finished 7th and 8th in the Eastern Conference, respectively. Neither team made the playoffs despite both of them having rosters that look stacked on paper. Why should it be any different for Atlanta?
Luckily for Atlanta, they’ll not be tied to an overseas ownership situation like Orlando City and NYCFC’s where the owners just throw money at their teams and expect results to magically appear. Atlanta United has the benefit of in-house, Atlantan management. Owner Arthur Blank has invested a great deal of money in his new project, and he will not let it fall flat right out of the gates. The ticket sales are already done; there are over 22,000 season tickets sold as of today. As long as the product is decent, Atlanta United FC should get off to a rip-roaring start.
So how exactly should we expect the team to fare in its first season? Right now, I’m expecting Atlanta to make the playoffs. The team won’t be spectacular, but they should do well enough to best some fellow Eastern Conference opponents. There’s no reason to think Columbus will magically improve over the offseason. Chicago Fire is a perpetual basket case under its current ownership. Minnesota United, Atlanta’s expansion pairing, doesn’t appear to be preparing with the same level of purpose as Atlanta. The only major problem Atlanta faces right now is the prospect of further stadium delays; Mercedes-Benz Stadium isn’t set to open until midseason.
Regardless of the stadium situation and my prediction of a mid-table playoff berth, it’ll still be Atlanta United’s first season. They could be the first team to win an MLS Cup in their first year. They could go completely winless and get drawn into a fierce battle for last place with Chicago Fire. In either outcome and every one in between, I just hope that there will be a team on the field in 2017 that can make the people of Atlanta and all the Southeast proud to be soccer fans.