The defending champions of Major League Soccer received their full slate of 2019 regular-season games Monday afternoon, and the schedule looks to be challenging, at best.
At worst, they’ll be tested with virtually nonstop matches early in the season, but at the same time, that would mean they’re performing well in important tournaments outside league play. So here are five big takeaways from Atlanta United’s 2019 schedule that demand a deeper dive.
1. The schedule isn’t complete: Because of the Five Stripes’ success in 2018, the side qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League, which is a tournament featuring only the best sides from North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Since becoming the CONCACAF Champions League in 2008, the tournament has only been won by Mexican clubs, though two MLS clubs – D.C. United and the L.A. Galaxy – won it all in 1998 and 2000, respectively, when it was known as the Champions’ Cup.
This is a really big deal in the soccer world because the winner advances to the FIFA Club World Cup, which will likely include world-famous clubs like Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Liverpool. In the CONCACAF Champions League, they’ll start with a quarterfinal match against Costa Rican side Herediano; each round is a two-leg home-and-home, much like the conference semifinals and finals in the 2018 MLS playoffs (that format has since been changed for 2019).
If AUFC can make it out of the first round, keep an eye on the CONCACAF Champions League single-match attendance record. It currently stands at 66,208, set in 2015 by Mexico’s Club América. The Five Stripes will play the home leg against Herediano at Kennesaw State’s Fifth Third Bank Stadium because of scheduling conflicts at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but expect them to move into larger digs and possibly break yet another attendance record if they advance.
2. That means, if they have success in the CONCACAF Champions League, March and April will be insane: We already know about the Feb. 21 and 28 matches against Herediano – those are already on the schedule. But if the Five Stripes can advance all the way to the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League, that adds four more matches to the schedule between March 5 and May 2 – a stretch that already has six MLS matches.
One doesn’t have to look back too far to see what this can do to an MLS side. Last year, Toronto FC were the defending MLS Cup champions, but a deep run to the CONCACAF Champions League finals put them way behind schedule in the MLS, and they couldn’t recover. Despite spoiling Atlanta United’s bid for the Supporters’ Shield in the final match of the regular season, Toronto FC finished ninth out of 11 teams in the Eastern Conference and missed the postseason.
Hopefully, June will provide an opportunity to regroup, with a span that could include 24 days off. But then there’s the U.S. Open Cup, a knockout tournament for American clubs that AUFC will join in June, which might fill some of those off-days with more matches. According to Mike Conti, voice of the Five Stripes, that period could have as many as two U.S. Open Cup matches inserted.
3. No MLS side will be on national TV more often: There will be 17 opportunities to see the Five Stripes on national television during the MLS regular season this year, the maximum for any one side. No other MLS side will play on national TV as much as AUFC in 2019.
4. But MLS is also trying to hide the premier rematch of the season, apparently: The MLS Cup rematch against the Portland Timbers will take place at Providence Park in downtown Portland on Sunday, Aug. 18 at … 10 p.m. EDT. It’ll be nationally televised, but you’ll have to catch an afternoon nap that day to stay up so late on a school night.
5. They’re getting the World Cup treatment again: Remember how an Atlanta United match immediately followed the 2018 World Cup Final, both of which were nationally televised on Fox? They’re doing it again this year for the Women’s World Cup on Sunday, July 7. The USWNT will (hopefully) raise the big trophy, and Fox will immediately go to a jam-packed Mercedes-Benz Stadium for AUFC’s Eastern Conference Final rematch against the New York Red Bulls. First kick from MBS will be at 2 p.m. that afternoon.
The full schedule – minus the CONCACAF Champions League and U.S. Open Cup fill-ins – is available on Atlanta United’s website.Follow @Sean_Breslin