Atlanta United Was an Instant Success. Now Comes the Hard Part.

ATLANTA — In the two years since its soccer party kicked off for real, Atlanta United has led a dreamlike existence. In a region few predicted would embrace the sport, it has at last produced, in vibrant fashion, the scenes American soccer fans have long envisioned: games being played in a gleaming new home; tens of thousands of fans standing and singing for 90 minutes; and flags and jerseys dotting not only the stands on matchdays, but also the city’s sidewalks, parks and lawns on the ones in between them.

“This thing came out of the earth,” the Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank said, “and is not going back in.”

Squarely established as the league’s standard-bearer in nearly every aspect off the field since it was announced as an expansion team in 2014 and began playing in 2017, Atlanta United has carefully built an infrastructure that it hopes will be able to sustain high standards for years to come. The final step was to come Saturday night: the chance to claim some tangible confirmation of its supremacy by beating the Portland Timbers in the M.L.S. Cup final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

But on Sunday morning, whether Atlanta wakes up with the trophy or not, a dose of reality will be waiting.

United’s coach will be departing. One of its best attackers is expected to leave in the off-season. The goal-scorer he fed all season might be right behind him. And there will be precious little time to shake off the winner’s confetti or the loser’s title-game hangover: As a reward for its success this season, Atlanta United will begin play in the Concacaf Champions League on Feb. 20, after the briefest of off-seasons and just a four-week training camp.

A shrinking off-season is hardly an American phenomenon; around the world, players and coaches are often on the move even before the season’s final whistle is blown. But Major League Soccer’s quirky roster rules and its March-to-December schedule, not to mention the looming January international transfer window, will bring reality to Atlanta United with stunning speed.

The first blast of cold water will arrive almost immediately: By noon on Sunday, Atlanta United must make decisions about whether to keep or release a handful of players whose contracts are expiring. It is a brutal and sometimes bizarre turnaround, one that the longtime league executive Garth Lagerwey experienced several times after his multiple championship game appearances with Real Salt Lake and Seattle, where he is currently the general manager.

“I traded a guy once while a confetti cannon was literally going off in our stadium,” Lagerwey said.

Even more difficult decisions will be up next. First, Atlanta United must replace Gerardo Martino, the league’s coach of the year, who in his brief tenure provided an instant measure of legitimacy — and credibility — for the club. His résumé included stints leading Barcelona and the Argentine men’s national team.

Whoever replaces Martino — several news reports have pointed to Guillermo Barros Schelotto of Boca Juniors, a former M.L.S. player, as a top candidate — will have only weeks to settle in before the Champions League kicks off.

“I think that’s the biggest challenge they have,” Lagerwey said, adding, “They have to get a new coach to come in and be consistent with their philosophy and identity.”

In Martino’s departure, announced before the end of the regular season, Atlanta United also will lose a major recruiting piece. The team’s South American stars Miguel Almirón and Josef Martínez both cited Martino, known as Tata, as a primary reason they joined the club, sight unseen, before its first-ever game.

But now Almirón could be on the way out; the 24-year-old Paraguayan, who had 12 goals and 14 assists this year, is reportedly headed to Europe. Martinez, who set the M.L.S. single-season scoring record with 31 goals en route to most valuable player honors this season, could depart for the right offer, too.

That is not to say this was not all by design. Darren Eales, Atlanta United’s president, said the team fully expected Martino to depart after two years. And the team has already reportedly found a replacement for Almirón: Gonzalo Martinez of Argentina’s River Plate, who is expected to join this off-season. Also waiting in the wings is Ezequiel Barco, the 18-year-old who was signed in January for a league-record transfer fee.

“It’s really about how you’re positioned in terms of replacements, how you’re building the culture around the club,” Eales said in explaining the team’s roster-building mentality, adding, “There’s that journey of understanding the global nature of the game and coming to terms with it.”

For Atlanta, and M.L.S., it is not just about filling roster holes, however. Identifying and developing young players with the intention of selling them has been at the core of Atlanta United’s business model from the start. It is a process the league acknowledges needs to happen more often for the league to grow. Already this year, M.L.S. has seen the departures of promising young players like Vancouver’s Alphonso Davies (to Bayern Munich) and Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams (to Germany’s RB Leipzig).

“We need to start becoming as much of a seller as we are a buyer in order for the economics of our investment to make sense,” M.L.S. Commissioner Don Garber said. “That’s the way the overall global soccer market works, and it’s something that needs to work a little more effectively in Major League Soccer.”

That doesn’t mean it’s an easy process. But Eales and Garber, and Lagerwey, who has been through it many times, say it is one that must occur for the league to evolve, for the party to continue.

“Really, what you want to do as a league, as a collective, is you want that baton to keep getting passed,” Lagerwey said. “Because if it’s getting passed, that means the next one’s bigger and better than the one before.”

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