Atlanta eyeing major prize as phase two set to begin

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Atlanta United 1.0 has been a roaring success in MLS.

In this era of Designated Players on big-money contracts, prompted by David Beckham's 2007 arrival in Los Angeles, Atlanta last year became only the fourth expansion side to reach the play-offs. Just 12 months later, it is hosting the MLS Cup.

Former Barcelona manager Tata Martino, with the help of owner Arthur Blank, president Darren Eales and technical director Carlos Bocanegra, has built this club from the ground up with a South American flavour.

Martino was installed as manager in September 2016 when Atlanta had just a handful of players to its name and he has since shaped a side playing vibrant, versatile football in front of crowds sometimes over 70,000.

The stars in Georgia come from Paraguay, Venezuela and Argentina and they defy the stereotype in MLS.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney made a splash in the United States in 2018, but even they could not match the lofty standards of sought-after playmaker Miguel Almiron or record-breaking goalscorer and MLS MVP Josef Martinez.

These players, along with Franco Escobar, the all-action full-back, and exciting winger Hector Villalba, have visited Atlanta en route to the top of the game - rather than on the steep return journey - inspired by Martino.

Almiron told The Players' Tribune last year: "I didn't know much about MLS. I didn't know where Atlanta was. I didn't know anything. But Tata was manager, and that was all I needed to know."

But win or lose against the Portland Timbers in the MLS Cup on Saturday and this team, Tata's team, will be torn apart.

Martino has announced his impending departure, with the Mexico job up for grabs. Meanwhile, Almiron's agent expects his client to be playing in the Premier League next season, as Newcastle United are thought to be suitors. Martinez, Almiron's closest ally, may well follow.

For Atlanta, though, this was always the plan.

There was no expectation that they would follow Portland, its next opponent, in relying on South American stars Diego Valeri and Diego Chara season after season.

Atlanta spent big in relative terms on players whose potential was never likely to be achieved within MLS, with a balance seemingly found where the Five Stripes can enjoy success and then send the likes of Almiron on their way to Europe at a profit. The Paraguay international, signed for $8million, has an asking price set at around $25m.

Yet even so, with forward planning in place, Atlanta 2.0 may not be so easy to create.

Ezequiel Barco, the highly-rated Argentina youth international, arrived for a record MLS fee of $15m last close-season but has failed to set the league alight. The club must more successfully recruit others like Almiron and also replace, in Martino, the most crucial piece.

Atlanta has taken a different approach to the rest of MLS and delivered short-term success. A title on Sunday would provide a fitting reward.

But can the club replace Martino? Is there another Almiron? Will Blank, Eales, Bocanegra and others be able to do this all over again? And then again? And again?

These are questions that might persist for some time.