Perhaps you’ve heard of Atlanta United. The club that expects close to 71,000 to turn up at Mercedez-Benz Stadium and is tearing up the Eastern Conference with a 12-4-4 record and 42 goals scored in 20 matches played. Despite the numbers, Seattle Sounders seemed unfazed by the new hot MLS property on the block as they prepared to travel to Georgia for the first time in league play.
Backed by billionaire Arthur Blank, who also owns the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, United has made several head-spinning signings in their first two years of play, paying out multi-million dollar transfer fees to bring in stars like Miguel Almiron (8 goals, 9 assists), Ezequiel Barco (4 goals, 1 assist) and Josef Martinez, whose 18 goals are more than the entire Sounders’ attack combined through the first half of the season.
Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei, asked about Atlanta’s rocketing path of success, felt it was a natural response to the state of the league.
“I think as the league’s getting bigger and bigger in terms of the amount of teams, you see with LA(FC) as well making a good entry into the league,” Frei said. “I think there’s a bigger pool for them to pick from in terms of the draft, and then on they have the luxury of filling out the roster with some better and better players. Maybe 5 to 10 years ago its going to be harder to coax them into coming to this league. Players still appreciate being safe here, having a steady income. Those are all guarantees that sometimes in other countries you don’t have. That’s what we’ve seen with those new teams coming in.”
Still, the Sounders may be prepared to deploy some glamour of their own in the form of new striker Raul Ruidiaz, now eligible to play as a Designated Player to replace the speed of injured Jordan Morris. Prior to knowing if Ruidiaz would have his final paperwork in order — it appears he does — Schmetzer virtually promised that the Peruvian would play if available.
Ruidiaz would be a much-needed shot in the arm for a Sounders attack that has managed 15 goals in its first 17 matches.
Schmetzer was nonplused by Atlanta’s news of massive crowds and an intense atmosphere.
“I think our guys are used to big crowds and big atmospheres. We’ve got a lot of guys that have played in big venues, big pressure moments. I don’t think there’s anything negative about it. I’m hoping it actually has the opposite effect. We go down there we look at the crowd and say ‘hey this is really cool. This is a big event, so let’s get after it.’ That’s what we’re hoping for.
“What I would say is that there have been plenty of successful expansion franchises. We were successful because we packed the building and had immediate success making the playoffs. Executives around the league always visit the teams that have had success: ‘What worked with your launch, what worked with yours?’ So they came here. That’s just being smart. If something worked you’re going to go out there and find some information that might work in your particular market. You could say there were some others teams in their era that were the trailblazers, that were the trendsetters, and we certainly think of ourselves as one of those teams.”
From a soccer perspective, the team is still focused on getting positive results on the road as it tries to dig itself out of the Western Conference basement.
“Got to keep the train rolling,” Frei said. “Difficult games, but we’ve got ourselves in this position. Four points out of two away games (last week), that’s amazing for most seasons, but we’ve put ourselves in a pickle where that’s not going to cut it. We’ve got to go in to tough road games like Atlanta and start getting stuff out of it. A point’s going to be good there, but we have to aim higher because it’s getting down to the wire.”