By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Feb 27, 2017) US Soccer Players – With the start of a new MLS season just days away, all attention is on which teams will be competitive enough in 2017 to make the playoffs and ultimately win MLS Cup. Will Seattle repeat? Can FC Dallas finally do it? Will either the Los Angeles Galaxy or New York Red Bulls live up to the hype? Will either Houston or Chicago go from worst to first? The answer to these questions, and so many more, await us over the coming months.
It's also a season that sees two expansion clubs enter the league – in Minnesota and Atlanta – with questions swirling about how far either can go. With the league growing at a rapid rate in recent years, new teams entering MLS always draw comparisons to the 1998 Chicago Fire that won the title in just its first year of existence. Can it happen again?
Never has there been in MLS history two expansion teams entering the league at the same time with such divergent approaches to building its respective teams. From its head coach to player personnel, everything Atlanta FC and Minnesota United have done couldn’t be more different.
Is either strategy the recipe for success in year one? For the time being, we can compare, contrast, and debate the issue. As both teams prepare for their maiden voyage through the treacherous waters that is the regular season, here is a look at how the teams have gone about building.
Hiring Gerardo “Tata” Martino is one way to make a splash. The former Argentine player-turned-coach has managed some of the world's best teams, including Barcelona and Argentina. His hiring was a statement to everyone in the league and across the Americas that this is a club that wants to win. The signing has allowed Atlanta to bring in some big names in part because of the type of coach the ownership group has decided to invest in.
After meeting owner Arthur Blank and touring Mercedes-Benz Stadium, still under construction in downtown Atlanta, Martino signed. All he has to do now is figure out a league that doesn't always fit that mold and pattern. Other big name foreign managers have failed in MLS before after failing to deal with the language barrier, differing style, and player systems. Martino will need to buck the general trend much in the same way NYCFC coach Patrick Vieria did last year.
In Minnesota, the choice of Adrian Heath is more in line with the type of coach an MLS team would hire. Heath may not have the experience Martino has, but he has the edge of having actually coached in MLS. His experience in Orlando and helping that organization grow will be invaluable to Minnesota.
Heath is a coach who can put together a winning plan. He knows the pitfalls of running an expansion club after his season and a half in MLS with Orlando City. Minnesota may very well be the place Heath makes a name for himself as a winning coach.
The team has drawn players - thanks to Martino - it would not have otherwise signed. Atlanta is a new franchise with no history. It has yet to play an official game. Nonetheless, the club brought in midfielders Miguel Almiron of Paraguay and Carlos Carmona of Chile as well as Hector Villalba of Argentina. Martino has infused not just South American flair to his line-up. The front office has also lured Americans Michael Parkhurst and Greg Garza to MLS in addition to the signing of striker Kenwayne Jones of Trinidad & Tobago.
As with any expansion side, there is lots of hype. Atlanta's is almost entirely due to Martino. The Almiron signing was a coup for the club and bodes well for general manager Carlos Bocanegra. Almiron has broken through with the Argentine National Team and is a rumored Arsenal target. If he can live up to the hype, then expect him to become a human highlight reel. At the same time, he could also be a bust. The travel, summer heat and variety of playing surfaces have made MLS tough for all kinds of star players in the past.
Meanwhile, Heath’s roster has gone in another direction. The team took inspiration from its regional demographics it appears, signing Northern European players to fill out its roster. Goalkeeper John Alvbage of Sweden and defender Vadim Demidov of Norway are two examples. It does help that Minnesota existed as a franchise prior to this season when it operated as an NASL team.
There already is excitement and buzz around the return of two players – Miguel Ibarra and Christian Ramirez – who formed the team's foundation a few years ago. Minnesota's time in the NASL allowed the team to become an MLS franchise much in the same way Seattle, Vancouver and Portland did years earlier. Expect a similar level of excitement.
Martino has coached at the highest levels and had some great players under him. Like many Argentines, Martino comes from the Marcelo Bielsa school of coaching. It was years ago that Bielsa introduced the 3-3-1-3 formation. Martino, however, has made several tweaks to that shape and prefers a 4-3-3 style.
Martino likes to utilize his wingers as wide a possible and likes for them to link up with the two other strikers as much as possible. Plays typically start in the middle of the field, move up the left wing, then back in the penalty area where the other two awaiting strikers will take a shot on goal. It is a predictable style, but one that can be lethal because it both fast and mimics a counterattacking style few defenses can contain. It's Barcelona's tiki-taka on steroids.
Heath, 56, is also an attack-minded manager, but in a different way. The Englishman likes to use tactical players. At Orlando, he used a 4-2-3-1 – as many other teams in MLS do – with a strong midfield that often looks like a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3.
Unlike Martino's 4-3-3, Heath likes to have many players defend, and pushes them forward on the attack. It gives him flexibility in the middle of the field and keeps the ball moving. It often makes up for a lack of strong attacking players. Having Ibarra, a speedy and creative attacking midfielder/winger should remedy that. Heath's European approach to the game, if you will, also means his players utilize a rugged style. This hybrid of creativity and physicality should be interesting to watch.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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