Building upon the Seattle Sounders’ method of expansion, Atlanta United thriving so far in MLS

When the Seattle Sounders welcome Atlanta United to CenturyLink Field on Friday (7 p.m. PT; FS1, KIRO Radio 97.3 FM, El Rey1360AM | TICKETS), the match will be like looking in the mirror. A time capsule of sorts. An out-of-body glimpse into the Sounders’ own past.

Atlanta is Major League Soccer’s 2017 darling, an expansion franchise that has hit the ground running while parading with the bravado of a seasoned veteran. More than 55,000 fans packed Bobby Dodd Stadium in their inaugural match in Week 1 to watch a team loaded with young talent from Argentina, Venezuela and Paraguay. Atlanta’s head coach, Tata Martino, has coached Lionel Messi — twice — with Barcelona and Argentina. Atlanta’s technical director, Carlos Bocanegra, is a former captain of the United States national team and has spent the last three years helping build this team from the ground up.

If Atlanta’s ambition and attitude feels familiar, like watching a modern remake of an old movie, it’s because its core, its values, its modus operandi is so…Seattle.

“The Sounders were as forward-looking and avant-garde as you could be in 2009,” said Sounders General Manager and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey. “Look at the crowds they have in Atlanta. If you look at the size of that launch, it’s a really, really successful organization. It’s been as good a start as you could ever hope for.

“It appears they have hit not just a home run,” he continued, “but a grand slam there.”

Atlanta’s fixation on the Sounders’ method should not be that surprising. Lagerwey is good friends with Atlanta President Darren Eales. The two were roommates in 1995 while with the Hampton Roads Mariners in minor-league soccer. Lagerwey and Eales, who was formerly Tottenham’s executive director, talk regularly and exchanged ideas before Eales took the job. They spoke of player development, the structure of contracts, what they thought of MLS and where they believed the league could be headed.

Lagerwey was not with Seattle when the Sounders made the leap from the USL in 2009, but he recognizes the similarities. Each club partnered with their respective local football teams. Each had tremendous crowds. Each brought in well-respected technical staff. And each did not skimp on acquiring players.

“They spent a boat-load of money,” Lagerwey said of Atlanta. “I believe it’s the second-most expensive signing from a coach perspective, and I believe it’s the highest DP-spend ever. If you pay more, you can get more quality.”

Added Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer, who was with Seattle in 2009: “The amount of money [Atlanta has] spent, and spent well, gives them a head start… They’ve given themselves a very good chance to be competitive right away.”

The Sounders signed U.S. national team veteran Kasey Keller, former Arsenal and West Ham midfielder Freddie Ljungberg and an exciting young Colombian forward by the name of Fredy Montero, who would go on to win MLS Newcomer of the Year. Atlanta dipped into the South American player pool as well with Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Yamil Asad and Hector Villalba. It also locked in several players with U.S. national team experience in Michael Parkhurst, Greg Garza and Brad Guzan, who will arrive later this summer from Middlesborough.

Expansion teams’ first years in MLS do not traditionally go well. There is a reason why the Sounders are the last expansion franchise to make the playoffs in their first season, and that was eight years ago. One doesn’t have to look further than Minnesota United’s struggles so far to prove that.

“Expansion is difficult,” Schmetzer said. “We launched our team pretty well. There’s been success, failures. Sometimes you’re lucky. Sometimes you’re really good at what you do, sometimes you jell early and you fade late or you’re not jelling early and you come on strong at the end.”

Atlanta’s successes on and off the field so far have helped reinvent and reimagine the future of the league as it heads into MLS 3.0, not unlike a similar Seattle-led charge nearly a decade ago. As Atlanta continues to build upon the foundation the Sounders established and push the envelope of what an MLS team is and can be, the ripple effect it creates will have expansive benefits.

“Can you always learn from new people coming in and how they do it? Absolutely,” Lagerwey said. “I’m rooting for [Atlanta] on some level and they’ve been really, really good for the league. Anything that’s good for the league is hopefully going to raise all boats.”

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