Panic Relief: Atlanta United back on track

After a slow start to the season that included an unceremonious exit from the CONCACAF Champions League in the second round, Atlanta United fans were a bit panicked.

Yours truly included.

But now, nearly midway through the season, Atlanta sits in third place in the Eastern Conference and just two points behind Philadelphia for first.

But the feeling at the start of the year that Atlanta was due some pain from its youngest professional franchise wasn’t exactly unwarranted.

Sure there may have been warning signs that things may not get off to a smooth start this season, but since when have usual struggles like being an expansion club slowed down the Five Stripes?

Tata Martino was off to be the head coach of Mexico’s national team, Miguel Almiron was transferred to Newcastle for a record sum and Greg Garza was traded to FC Cincinnati.

Atlanta also was banged up to start the season, thus putting new coach Frank de Boer in the unenviable position of fighting off a championship hangover and implementing a new system without all the key pieces.

Atlanta was shutout twice in its first four MLS matches, and earned just two points in the month of March. The results in April were better, but the offense seemed to be struggling to find its rhythm. It was a shock for Atlanta fans who have been spoiled by a furious-paced attack since the club’s debut.

It also was likely a bit of a ‘not-again’ moment for de Boer who was relieved of his duties rather quickly at the last two stops. Dad jokes were flying from Alpharetta to Dacula during those first few weeks of the season. I may have even fired one off from Florida.

But after those growing pains, de Boer and his staff showed what they had been building toward.

Following a 2-0 loss to FC Dallas on April 27, Atlanta ripped off five straight wins and has won 7 of 9 overall. United has posted a shutout in every win this season and its nine goals allowed are the fewest in the MLS.

Mr. Clean Sheet himself, Brad Guzan has been tremendous with 33 saves.  Twenty-two-year-old Miles Robinson has been the year’s biggest revelation on defense. The 6-foot-2 defender has played so well that he probably should have been invited to play for the United States this summer in the Gold Cup.

Defender Franco Escobar missed the beginning of the season with a right clavicle injury, and has been a steadying force in his return. Fellow Argentine Leandro González Pirez and American Michael Parkhurst carried the load early in the season and have been solid throughout. Brek Shea has been surprisingly fine.

While the defense became a strength early, Josef Martinez has reminded the league why he wears the crown as of late. The king has five goals in the last three matches to give him 10 for the season.

Ezequiel Barco struggled to make much of an impact last season as an MLS rookie, but was Atlanta’s best offensive player at the start of its turnaround before national team duty for Argentina in the U-20 World Cup called.

He’s kept up his scoring ways during his time away as well. He’s already scored twice and recorded an assist entering Tuesday’s knockout round match against Mali.

Almiron’s replacement, Pity Martinez is begging to round into form as well. He had a beautiful assist to Josef in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Chicago.

They’ll need players such Hector Villalba or perhaps even young Americans Brandon Vasquez and Andrew Carleton (I can’t quit you Frosted Orange!) to play bigger roles throughout the summer with Josef being called up to play for Venezuela in Copa America. de Boer also told reporters on Saturday that he did expect Atlanta to add to its roster when the transfer window reopens.

Looking back now it’s easy to say that Atlanta United fans may have hit the panic button a little early. With a sturdy defense and a continually growing attack, the rest of the league may soon be the ones sounding the alarm as the summer wears on.

(Photo: Dale Zanine, USA TODAY Sports)

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