Atlanta United are, in many ways, what the New York Red Bulls fanbase - and indeed, most MLS fanbases - have wanted to be for years: A team that pays top-dollar for world-class talent, managed by a world-class head coach, develops players into stars for the USMNT & other nations alike, and - perhaps most importantly, have parlayed all of that into a winning formula to the tune of a league-best 25 points in 11 matches (2.37 ppg).
We sat down with Dirty South Soccer editor Haris Kruskie about the Red Bulls’ upcoming visit to Atlanta to get the lowdown on this up-and-coming MLS powerhouse:
OaM: We’re all familiar with the “big names” - Nagbe, Barco, Almiron, Martinez - but who are the guys flying under the radar that are making this team a legitimate MLS Cup contender?
Haris K.: Even though he’s still getting back into the swing of things after a hamstring injury, Tito Villalba is a very pacy forward that adds another element to Atlanta’s already lethal attack. Although he’s a Designated Player, I feel like Villalba’s still largely overlooked and seen as “the other guy” when compared alongside Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco, and Josef Martinez. However, if he starts on Sunday, I think his ruthless combination of speed and precise runs off the ball could make it a long night for NYRB’s backline.
OaM: After spending a league-record $15 million to get him, I would imagine the Atlanta United fans are eager to see Ezequiel Barco make good on that investment quickly. How’s he looking so far and what’s the ceiling on this guy?
Haris K.: Barco definitely showed flashes of his quality over the past few matches. It’s clear that he’s good on the ball, rarely turns it over, is unafraid to take on opposing defenders, and can finish as well as any player on the team after his quality goals against Chicago and Orlando.
I’m personally considering this season as more of a test run for him just because I think his best is yet to come. I think he will flourish next season and really start to warrant his huge price tag. It’s important to remember that this is in fact a 19-year-old still learning how to play in a new system.
OaM: Atlanta United don’t really seem to have any geographic rivals. Who do the Five Stripes really have a hate-on for?
Haris K.: It’s absolutely Orlando, who we just happened to play last week. It’s funny you mention geography because they’re still the closest MLS team Atlanta has, about a 6-7 hour drive or a one hour flight.
A lot of fans of both sides have been quick to subdue the term “rivalry” between the two clubs because they think it’s something that has been fabricated by MLS itself to garner attention, but I disagree with that. Whenever they’re getting ready to play each other, fans are vicious on social media. During the match, fans go back and forth and even the players tend to get into it with each other. At this point, it’s a rivalry in my eyes. Yes, it hasn’t even been two years, but the fanbases seem to strongly dislike each other for the most part and it always means a little more to win against them than it does against someone else.
Many thanks to Haris, who will publish our answers to his 3 Questions on DirtySouthSoccer.com. And additional thanks to Austin Fido for making this interview possible.