As a huge fan of European soccer, I usually stray away from watching the MLS because the difference in quality is so noticeably vast. However, this year I’ll be making an exception by trying to tune in to watch as many Atlanta United games as I possibly can.
Last year, Atlanta United became the third-ever MLS expansion team to qualify for the playoffs in their inaugural season. Stacked with an abundance of young attacking talent, they emerged as one of the most exciting offensive teams in MLS, scoring the second-most goals in the league with 70.
A big reason they were able to acquire all of that young talent was due to the hiring of former Barcelona and Argentina manager Tata Martino. He has plenty of experience with talented attackers, as he’s coached the likes of Leo Messi, Neymar, Angel di Maria, Paulo Dybala, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Mauri Icardi and many more. With Martino’s resume and South American roots, it’s easy to see how he’s been able to assemble a front four that is already looking to lead Atlanta to a MLS Cup in just its second season.
Let’s have a look at that front four, shall we?
First up is Atlanta’s big-money signing Ezequiel Barco, who started playing for the Independiente first team just a few months after his 17th birthday. In his first full season, he accumulated 4 goals and 3 assists while making 30 appearances for the Argentinian side.
He quickly became one of the most sought-after prospects in all of South America with many top European clubs keying in on him. However, Atlanta United shocked many when they paid an MLS-record $15 million for Barco, snatching him away from the bigger European clubs. This really speaks volumes about Martino’s influence, as he was able to convince a big prospect to join MLS instead of heading to Europe.
It is important to note, however, that Ezequiel Barco suffered a quad injury in preseason and will be out for 4-6 weeks, but when he returns, it won’t be long before he’s turning heads all over the country. He’s very fast, a wonderful dribbler, and appears to be a genuine two-footed player. This adds another dimension to his game, as he can either cut in from the left wing or try to beat a defender down the line and fire a ball into the danger area. The season hasn’t even started yet, and MLS fans are already eagerly anticipating his return.
Miguel Almiron was bought last year for $8 million from Argentinian side Lanus, whom he helped lead to a league title in 2016. In his first year with Atlanta, the attacking midfielder racked up an impressive 14 assists, which was tied for 4th-most in all of MLS, and also contributed 9 goals.
In just his first MLS season, Almiron was voted to the All-Star team, was a finalist in the MVP race, won the MLS Newcomer of the Year award, and was ranked #1 on the MLS “24 Under 24” list. Almiron is also considered to be one of the top young Paraguayan talents along with Real Betis striker Antonio Sanabria.
Almiron is a quality dribbler with blazing speed, but his best trait is his creativity. If all goes well, he could be at the top of the assist leaderboard this season, and I’m very excited to see how he builds off of last year’s stellar campaign now that he has a successful year in the US under his belt.
If Almiron can lead the MLS in assists, then Martinez could absolutely lead the league in goals. He scored 19 of them last year in just 17 starts, the 4th-most in MLS. He’s already arguably the best finisher in the league, so if he starts 30+ games this season, we could be looking at a record-breaking number of goals especially with the service that he’ll be getting from the players behind him.
Last but not least, we have Hector “Tito” Villalba. Like the other three members of the front-four, Villalba is blessed with incredible pace and is able to blow by opposing defenders. A staple in the starting XI, he started every single match for Atlanta last year registering 13 goals and 11 assists, 2nd and 3rd-most on the team, respectively.
He also loves scoring in style, as he won MLS Goal of the Week 3 times, including an incredible strike against Orlando in the 86th minute that not only won the game, but also won MLS Goal of the Year.
Honorable Mention: Andrew Carleton and Julian Gressel
If all that wasn’t enough, Atlanta actually has two more promising youngsters that will feature a lot this season off the bench. Julian Gressel is the reigning MLS Rookie of the Year, an award he won by a landslide. Gressel appeared in all but two matches last season, and was able to rack up 9 assists, which is 3rd-most by any rookie in MLS history. He also finished with 5 goals, giving him the most combined goals and assists among rookies.
Then you have Andrew Carleton, who is one of the most hyped American prospects in the MLS. He’s still only 17, but he should find himself getting significant minutes after making just one appearance last season. Carleton also had 2 goals and 3 assists for the United States at the U-17 World Cup in India last year, meaning that he was directly involved in almost half of the USA’s goals throughout the tournament.
Both are very exciting young players who should see significant playing time early on due to Barco’s absence.
With six young and exciting attacking talents at their disposal, this is a team that’s already been tipped as one of the favorites to win the MLS Cup, and I’m excited to see some fast-paced, electrifying soccer from the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta kicks off its season on Saturday (March 3) against Houston at 3:30pm EST, live on Univision.