Atlanta United aims for playoffs in MLS expansion season

Atlanta United FC head coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino talks with his players during a soccer training session Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 in Flowery Branch, Ga. Martino isn’t backing down from the high expectations that go with being the MLS expansion Atlanta United coach. As the former coach of the Argentina and Paraguay national teams, Martino knows more than a little about trying to satisfy a demanding fan base. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Gerardo "Tata" Martino isn't backing down from the high expectations that go with being the MLS expansion Atlanta United coach

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Gerardo "Tata" Martino isn't backing down from the high expectations that go with being the MLS expansion Atlanta United coach.

As the former coach of the Argentina and Paraguay national teams, Martino knows more than a little about trying to satisfy a demanding fan base. Atlanta's soccer-starved fans have bought more than 27,000 season tickets.

Six MLS expansion teams have failed to make the postseason since Seattle lost in the first round of the playoffs in its 2009 inaugural season.

"I can't comment on the other teams, but we're excited to try to be the second team to make the playoffs," Martino said Thursday through an interpreter.

Atlanta has been called the league's "Seattle of the South" due to the strong ticket sales. Seattle led the MLS with its average attendance of 42,636 last season while winning the MLS Cup.

More than 40,000 tickets have been sold for Atlanta's March 5 opening game against the New York Red Bulls at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium. Atlanta could rank near the top of this season's attendance leaders.

"It's great that the reception has been what it has been," Martino said. "I hope the team can meet the expectations of the city."

Atlanta's roster includes a mix of young players from South America and veterans with MLS experience, including defender Michael Parkhurst, who served as the Columbus captain the last three years.

Parkhurst, 33, says this isn't a normal expansion team. The four-time MLS All-Star said he had "no apprehension" about joining the expansion team, even though history shows it has been difficult for new teams to win immediately.

"I think you know what you're getting involved with the predecessors of other expansion teams and their success early on, but that being said I don't think Atlanta United is like any other expansion team," Parkhurst said. "The way that they've set themselves up on and off the field is just a lot different than their predecessors. I think the expectations for us on the field are different as well."

Parkhurst credited the team's technical director, Carlos Bocanegra, a former captain of the U.S. national team, for Atlanta's "very organized" front office.

"I think Atlanta has really set us up to have success, and that's the most important thing," Parkhurst said.

Atlanta actually has a championship in its pro soccer history. The Atlanta Chiefs won the 1968 North American Soccer League championship. That NASL title was the city's biggest pro sports championship until the Braves won the 1995 World Series.

Atlanta's new MLS franchise is still setting its foundation. A new training facility in suburban Marietta is not complete, so the team has juggled its practice sites. This week's work has been held at the NFL Atlanta Falcons' practice facility.

The team's new stadium also is not yet complete, making it necessary to make temporary use of the Georgia Tech facility.

Arthur Blank, owner of the NFL Atlanta Falcons, also owns Atlanta United and the teams will share the $1.5 billion Mercedes Benz Stadium. Atlanta United's debut in the new stadium is scheduled for July 30 against Orlando City.

Martino says there have been "all positive thoughts so far" as brings his fast-paced, attacking style to the MLS.

"He's been great for us," Parkhurst said. "He's really been open with his communication. He's made it clear he wants it to be physical, he wants it to be intense on the field. But off the field he's very approachable. He's working on his English and we're all working on our Spanish and we're making it work."

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