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Atlanta title defense back on track after offseason of change threatened to derail campaign

ATLANTA -- Before the start of the 2019 Major League Soccer season, Atlanta United were riding high. And for good reason.

While the 2018 MLS Cup winner lost head coach Tata Martino and spark plug Miguel Almiron in the offseason, it replaced that duo with former Ajax manager Frank de Boer and Pity Martinez, the reigning South American Footballer of the Year who joined the Five Stripes for a reported MLS-record $17 million. A preseason 7-1 destruction of the Seattle Sounders and 2-2 draw with juggernaut-in-waiting LAFC confirmed the reasons for excitement from the league's best new fan base.

Then, disaster.

The cracks first showed in a 3-1 loss to Herediano in the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) round of 16. A 4-0 victory in the return leg got United through to the next round, but they lost their league opener to D.C. United, were pasted by Monterrey in the CCL and posted a pair of 1-1 home draws against expansion side FC Cincinnati and the Philadelphia Union. Add loses to the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas and uninspiring wins against traditional bottom dwellers the New England Revolution and the Colorado Rapids -- during which De Boer subbed off an ineffectual and frustrated Martinez -- and one of the league's premier franchises found itself scuffling for the first time in its history.

"There was definitely frustration early on in the season from players, from fans," team captain Michael Parkhurst told ESPN FC. "We could hear the tenseness early on at home games."

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As the calendar flipped to May, Atlanta United sat on just eight points from seven games in MLS and had been knocked out of the CCL.

Perhaps the poor results shouldn't have come as a surprise. "I think we were probably a little naive to think that we were going to come into the season and pick up right where we left off since we lost the best player in the league and then changed coaching staffs," Parkhurst said. "It's a big change."

Curtis Jenkins, president of supporters' group Footie Mob, agrees. "What we had heard from the beginning was that the system was very similar to Tata's," he said. "I think we were all hoping that it would be a bit more seamless than it was. But, obviously, it wasn't."

The focus shifted from dominating the early stages of the 2019 to merely surviving. Parkhurst and some of the older players on the team harped on a theme: the season is long and repeating as champion is hard -- the LA Galaxy in 2011 and 2012 were the last team to do so -- so don't panic. What they didn't want to do was follow Toronto FC's path, which saw the club win MLS Cup in 2017 but never get on track the following year and finish in 19th overall.

The first sign that things might be turning around came in Kansas City in early May. Atlanta United went into one of MLS' most intimidating venues and dominated, winning 3-0 (1.52 to .62 on expected goals) and stifling Sporting Kansas City's attack. For Parkhurst, it was the squad's most complete game of the season.

Josef Martinez celebrates after scoring in Atlanta United's MLS match against the New York Red Bulls.
Josef Martinez and Atlanta United have rebounded to be MLS Cup contenders yet again.

"I think the belief was there before within the team, but going out and doing it and having a performance like that as a team helps," he said. "Everyone gets satisfied when you win a game, even if you don't deserve it, but it's a better feeling when you go out there and you dominate. You play exactly how you trained, and it just works out."

Under Martino, United played fast and loose, pressing whenever possible then settling into a defensive shape with whoever was left, with Almiron's lightning transitions featuring prominently. De Boer opted for a more organized, defensive focus.

"Frank wants the whole team to be together," Parkhurst said. "You either do it or don't do it."

That cohesion takes time to master, and it's coming together. While there have been some setbacks, like a recent 5-1 midweek destruction in Chicago against a Fire team desperate for a result, United have won 22 points in their past 12 games. That's good enough for 1.83 points per match, close to their 2.03-points-per-game figure from 2018. They are in third place, a point out of second and just six points out of first with two games in hand on the Philadelphia Union.

The defensive system is taking root. According to American Soccer Analysis, through their first 17 games, they gave up just 9.3 shots per game -- second in MLS behind LAFC's 9.2 -- while conceding just 15 goals, compared with 44 through 34 contests last season. The 2018 United squad posted an expected goals total of 37.8, more than six fewer than the number of goals they actually conceded. This season's team reversed that trend, with their 18.6 expected goals sitting 3 1/2 goals higher than the total conceded. Maybe that discrepancy is luck. Or, perhaps, De Boer's organized defense led by All-Stars Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Brad Guzan and the emergence of Miles Robinson is making chances more difficult for the opposition in a way that the expected goals total doesn't show.

Confidence is building. Before a recent home game against the Montreal Impact, the squad walked into Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the swagger of champions. They looked calm in their suits, most sporting dress shoes but Brek Shea and recent addition Justin Meram, who would score both goals in the 2-1 victory, opting for bright white sneakers. An hour before kickoff, the stadium felt like the Mercedes-Benz Stadium of 2018, the fans loud, boisterous and in number.

The match against the Impact wasn't an overwhelming performance. United kept the visitors in the game for too long. They gave up a goal when Martinez lost the ball in midfield, a poor choice and lack of effort that had Guzan gesturing angrily and demonstratively at the South American star. They did, however, prevail.

United aren't a finished product. But also, it's only July. They are getting better, getting healthy, getting Ezequiel Barco, Tito Villalba, Josef Martinez and George Bello back at some point.

"Give us another four to six weeks and I think you'll see Atlanta United running on all cylinders," Footie Mob's Jenkins said. "We'll see the team we've been expecting, very unfairly, since CCL."

They are a team no one will want to meet in the postseason, a squad that knows how to win because, after all, they did it not so long ago.

"We understand what's ahead," Parkhurst said. "We understand what it takes to do well in the playoffs."

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