Atlanta ready for MLS debut, says former Rangers and Fulham defender Carlos Bocanegra

Carlos Bocanegra has spent two years as Atlanta United's technical director and is now ready to take them into Major League Soccer

Two years on, the waiting is almost over. Thursday marks the second anniversary of Carlos Bocanegra's appointment as Atlanta United's technical director - but it's this weekend he is more concerned about.

Overseeing the initial piecing together of one of the MLS's latest expansion franchises has been no easy task, yet the early signs suggest Bocanegra has done a good job.

With former Barcelona manager Tata Martino installed as head coach, his influence has allowed the new Georgia club to build a team which has shown promise in pre-season.

A first taste of how competitive it might be will be had in the early hours of Monday morning, when Atlanta host New York Red Bulls live on Sky Sports 2.

The opening match of their debut campaign will be played at their temporary Bobby Dodd Stadium home while the finishing touches are applied to their new Mercedes Benz Stadium.

Bocanegra finished his playing career with the former MLS side Chivas USA and is now on a new path with Atlanta
Image: Bocanegra finished his playing career with the former MLS side Chivas USA and is now on a new path with Atlanta

To be shared with NFL's Atlanta Falcons, it will be one of MLS's most spectacular venues - though the fact they aren't in it yet highlights United are still very much a work in progress.

While their first fixture comes against last year's Eastern Conference winners, it represents an opportunity to lay a marker for the months ahead and there is optimism that can happen.

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With things gradually falling into place off the park, former Fulham and Rangers defender Bocanegra is looking forward to seeing how things gel on it.

He said "We're just a few days out now so it's been a really busy period but it's good and things are coming together.

Former Barcelona head coach Tata Martino will be in charge of MLS newcomers Atlanta United this season
Image: Former Barcelona head coach Tata Martino will be in charge of MLS newcomers Atlanta United this season

"It's been a long process and there has been a lot to prepare away from the field. We've had systems to put in place, procedures to set up and routines to get into.

"I think we've done pretty well with that. We were able to bring in a lot of people a year out and getting them in early was good.

"There have been a few things we didn't expect but I think you're always going to get that, whether it's ticket requests, parking passes or something else. It's been fun.

"Dealing with staying at hotels, travelling to different places and sorting out meals is important. It all comes down to a budget, of course, and you start to learn.

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"We've a salary cap to stick to and the rules are a little different regarding how we acquire players. We need to be compliant with certain things but we are in a good place now."

Atlanta's performances in their warm-up games back up the belief many MLS observers have that they can make one of the biggest impacts of any new sides coming into the league.

Among their results was a 4-2 win against Seattle Sounders, albeit the current MLS Cup holders did not introduce many of their regulars until the second half.

With a 2-1 defeat to Columbus Crew too, a little perspective was gained and Bocanegra appreciates big challenges lie ahead.

Atlanta will move into the new $1.6b Mercedes Benz Stadium later this year once construction is completed
Image: Atlanta will move into the new $1.6b Mercedes Benz Stadium later this year once construction is completed

Atlanta lack the big names the likes of New York City FC had when they entered the league two years ago.

Even with David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and, latterly, Frank Lampard in tow, it took until their second season to really settle.

Nevertheless, there is a quiet confidence in the new side's ranks and Bocanegra added: "On paper, we're excited about what we can do.

"At the same time, it's difficult building from scratch because there's no continuity in the team yet.

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"The players have no experience of playing together other than in pre-season games. They've only had five weeks there to build relationships so we're going to be up against it.

"Now it's a case of how quickly they can get on board with the coach's tactics. All of that stuff takes time.

"While we feel good about how we've been able to get our players, that's just on paper and we've a massive challenge ahead of us to play well and compete.

"We're under no illusions we're just going to waltz in and it's going to be easy. We saw that the last time expansion teams came in and that's on our mind.

Atlanta will play their first few MLS matches at Bobby Dodd Stadium, with a full house expected for this weekend's visit of New York Red Bulls
Image: Atlanta will play their first few MLS matches at Bobby Dodd Stadium, with a full house expected for this weekend's visit of New York Red Bulls

"Our designated players are all 23 and under and our hope is we can get them in the right environment and they can eventually become household names with us.

"We have a little bit of a different philosophy on how we want to acquire players and build up our team.

"We've tried to get some young studs, so to speak, and tried to mix them with some veterans with MLS experience. Hopefully that blend works out nicely on the field."

Atlanta won't lack support in their bid to start well. This week they announced season ticket sales have passed the 30,000 mark, with more than 50,000 fans expected this weekend.

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Anticipation in Georgia is high and Bocanegra's task in the first few weeks of the campaign will be tempering expectations as much as anything.

He said: "We'll have six or seven games at our temporary stadium but it's actually a really cool venue right in the centre of town.

"After that we'll move to our new home and it's going to be a big challenge for us. Our training ground also isn't going to be ready until the end of March so that's another one.

"All of that stuff comes on top of being an expansion franchise and bringing in all the new players so there are lots of things for us to get through.

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"We knew what we were up against but it was something we wanted to take head on. We wanted to go for it and we're not looking to make excuses.

"Instead, we're asking how we can beat these challenges and come out of it successful on the other side."

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