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August 25, 2017

In a matter of months, expansion Atlanta United has surpassed the Philadelphia Union

This Saturday is the first meeting between the Philadelphia Union and expansion side Atlanta United. One team has played seven months of Major League Soccer while the other has played seven seasons, but the gulf in quality is already apparent.

The new club is the better club in almost every way. 

For starters, just look at the Eastern Conference table.

Atlanta has 35 points with a 10-8-5 record. They're on 1.52 points per game with a 6-2-1 home record and 4-6-4 road record. Philadelphia sits on 30 points with a 8-12-6 record. The Union have a 1.15 PPG mark with a 7-4-2 home record and a 1-8-4 road record. 

That's an established MLS franchise lagging behind a brand new team.

For comparison, expansion Philly finished with a 8-15-7 record back in 2010. Atlanta needed only 60% of their inaugural season to eclipse the Union in that department. They're projected to make the playoffs in their first year of existence. 

Here are a couple of other things to consider:

1. Atlanta's front four is more exciting than any attack the Union has ever constructed

The combination of Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Yamil Asad, and Hector Villalba easily surpasses any offense that Philly has rolled out. It's a group that's contributed 29 goals and 20 assists this season, helping Atlanta to a plus-12 goal differential.

Philadelphia's combo of C.J. Sapong, Chris Pontius, Fafa Picault, and Ilsinho has put up 21 goals and 15 assists. The Union are eight goals behind Atlanta even having played three more games. 

For further context, Atlanta is predominantly operating out of the same 4-2-3-1 system that the Union use. One is a team-first defensive shape, while the other features superstars at multiple positions. 

2. Atlanta is spending money

Arthur Blank is a fantastic, committed owner who puts tons of money into his product. Miguel Almiron's transfer fee of eight million dollars is more than the Union has ever paid for any of the 126 payers on the all-time roster, salary and bonuses included.

Three of those front four attackers are designated players who earn a combined 3.6 million dollars. Philadelphia's entire front four is paid about 1.4 million. 

United is also getting more out of their TAM players than Philadelphia is. At that threshold, Atlanta has Carlos Carmona, Brad Guzan, Chris McCann, and Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez. Three are regular starters. The Union have four TAM players in Roland Alberg, Ilsinho, Jay Simpson, and Haris Medunjanin. Only two are in the first-choice XI. 

And for what it's worth, Jack Elliott's main competition for Rookie of the Year is Julian Gressel, who also came out of the latest SuperDraft. 

3. Atlanta's attendance is better than Philadelphia's attendance 

Talen Energy Stadium, capacity 18,500, has not been full this year.

Atlanta, meantime, is putting 46,000 people into Georgia Tech's football stadium. They'll soon be moving into the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which will hold 71,000 fans for Falcons games and 42,000 fans for soccer games.  

4. They didn't mess around off the field 

Instead of finding some MLS retread, Atlanta went out and got ex-Barcelona and Argentina manager Gerardo Martino to run their expansion side.

They brought in Darren Eales, Tottenham's former Director of Football Administration, to be their first President. Longtime U.S. National team defender Carlos Bocanegra stepped in as Technical Director. 

5. The infrastructure is already built

Philadelphia needed five seasons just to construct practice fields and a training center.

Back in April, Atlanta unveiled a $60 million, 30,000 sqaure foot training facility with six full-sized fields. 

Their youth academy is up and running and they've already signed three homegrown players for 2018. The Union have signed six homegrowns in eight years and added Adam Najem, who came via trade with New York, as a seventh.

A few more things to think about...   

• Atlanta has the same amount of playoff wins as Philadelphia (zero). 

• Atlanta has the same amount of winning seasons as Philadelphia (one).

• Atlanta has a radio deal with both English and Spanish-language stations (Philly has no radio broadcast). 

• The stadiums, both Bobby-Dodd and Mercedes-Benz, are centrally located with mass transit access (Talen is not).  

• The city has a younger, more diverse millennial population (Union crowds are predominantly suburban and white). 

• With ten goals, Villalba would be eighth-place on the Union's all-time charts. Asad's ten assists would place him eighth all-time in that department.

So, what does Philly have? 

There are only a few things I can think of where Philly eclipses Atlanta, and one is the existence of Talen as a grass-covered, soccer-specific stadium. It's still one of the best gameday experiences I've had up and down the east coast. 

Still, I think most Union fans would gladly share a turf field with the Atlanta Falcons if Arthur Blank's bank account was part of the deal. 

The Union have an organic fan base with a great back story. The genesis of the team is typically Philadelphian and easy to get behind. There's a core of dedicated, loyal fans who create a special atmosphere surrounding an underdog team. 

Philly has the better kits and the better name, with Atlanta going for utterly boring colors and a coma-inducing "United" brand. 

And ... that's about all I can think of. 

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