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North Carolina FC
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 By Matt Pentz

Atlanta is living up to the hype, battling MLS' reputation as a retirement home

Sunday afternoon brings together everyone's favorite new Major League Soccer team, Atlanta United, and the one that most around league love to hate, New York City FC.

Atlanta is winning over fans by the week with its aesthetically pleasing style of play and attendance figures that would make even the Seattle Sounders' expansion season blush. NYCFC have been painted as villains from the moment the New York Yankees became involved, and even if that reputation is often overblown, the club hasn't exactly banished it in the years since.

It isn't that simple, of course. It never is. There's plenty of nuance baked into the matchup, too.

On a more tangible level, both teams are still just trying to establish themselves as legitimate Eastern Conference contenders. The two sides are part of the sizable trailing pack trying to keep pace with the front-runners; merely three points separate NYCFC in fourth place and the New England Revolution in ninth.

It's worth examining why, exactly, Atlanta is already so beloved by neutrals and asking whether it has lived up to the hype that preceded its expansion season.

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Atlanta, at the risk of using too broad a stroke, has built its roster the way most of the league's diehard fans would if given the opportunity. Those who follow MLS closely are oversensitive to the league's reputation as a retirement home for the European elite. And so Atlanta has found an eager audience for its strategy of investing in young, up-and-coming talent.

"We would like players that make themselves a star rather than going out and buying a star," sporting director Carlos Bocanegra said in an interview earlier this year. "We wanted to be younger. We wanted to be fast, athletic, entertaining, exciting, attack-minded."

No pressure, then, Carlos.

None of Atlanta's three designated players -- Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez (out with an injury) and Hector Villalba -- is older than 23. And in line with another league-wide trend, all three were signed out of South America.

They also stand in contrast to their opponents this weekend. It's hard to make a serious case against the wisdom of signing World Cup champion David Villa, the reigning league MVP. But NYCFC's early penchant for targeting Europeans on the wrong side of 30 on DP contracts was reminiscent of an era from which a lot of folks would rather see MLS move on.

NYCFC's reputation isn't exactly fair, nor is it even wholly accurate at this point. Under third-year coach Patrick Vieira, the team has been as innovative and appealing to watch as any in the East. The signing of then-29-year-old midfielder Maxi Moralez this past offseason hinted at a shifting emphasis. First impressions, though, tend to stick longer than they sometimes should.

And Atlanta certainly has NYCFC beat on that front. It hasn't just invested heavily in its roster. Once Mercedes-Benz Stadium is (finally) completed, the home the club will share with the NFL's Falcons will immediately be among the fancier digs in MLS.

United's $60 million training facility is already, bar none, the best in MLS. It landed a proven coach, Gerardo "Tata" Martino, who spent his past two gigs in charge of FC Barcelona and the Argentina national team.

Atlanta is the embodiment of the direction many would like to see the league heading in the next years and decades.

Atlanta has built its roster the way most MLS diehard fans would if given the opportunity.

Bocanegra, for one, is still a bit baffled about how far MLS has already come in its 21-plus years of existence. The longtime U.S. men's national team stalwart played for the Chicago Fire from 2000 to 2003 and Chivas USA from 2013 to 2014, bookending a lengthy stint overseas.

"I don't think anybody in America thought it would come this far, this quick," Bocanegra said. "I remember playing in a high school football stadium with the end zones painted, and there's nobody at the game. We stayed in hotel that's like a motel/hotel, where the doors are on the outside with the parking lot in the middle."

Now he's spearheading perhaps the most ambitious project in American soccer with the backing of owner Arthur Blank's checkbook. If Bocanegra's Chicago Fire represented MLS 1.0 and David Beckham's LA Galaxy and Villa's NYCFC stand in for 2.0, Atlanta is the next phase in that evolution.

This team is not a finished product. It isn't even securely in the playoff picture, ahead of Chicago and D.C. United only by superior goal differential. Last weekend's 3-1 loss to D.C. highlighted Atlanta's weaknesses. With so much of its salary cap tied into the attack, this team is a bit top-heavy.

Atlanta has scored more goals than anybody else in the Eastern Conference and everybody in the league besides the Portland Timbers. It cannot, however, always keep them out. Despite being badly outshot and out-possessed, D.C. showed a cutting edge and killer instincts its host could learn from.

Still, more signs point to Atlanta being for real than not. More than half of its games have been away from Bobby Dodd Stadium, including four straight that resulted in draws against each of the defending MLS Cup finalists and a win at previously daunting Rio Tinto Stadium against Real Salt Lake.

Goal differential is a decent indicator of staying power, and Atlanta's plus-seven is best in the East. New York City isn't far back, at plus-five. NYCFC's goal total, too, isn't shabby: 14, tied for second in the conference.

The difference between Sunday's combatants might be overhyped. But at the very least, the match should feature no shortage of action.

Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.


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