Sunday may have been an unusual sight for Atlanta United fans: a team built on free-flowing, possession-based, attacking soccer sat back in a defensive set-up to absorb pressure. Head Coach Tata Martino admitted this was not how he usually likes his teams to play.
“It wasn't our prettiest performance tonight,” he said through a translator, “but it was practical in our approach and I think that's important as a team to be able to adjust to different situations and overcome different situations, especially in the playoffs.”
That sums it up: not pretty, but practical. And it was certainly effective, sealing the aggregate win under heavy pressure in a harsh road environment. While the first-leg win set the Five Stripes up for success, there was plenty left to do in leg 2 –– and they did it.
“That is a really good Red Bulls team and if you don’t come out how we did against them tonight, they can easily come out and score three goals,” captain Michael Parkhurst told reporters after the match. “So you know that they are going to push and we are going to have to defend, we are going to have to weather some storms. We did that tonight and everyone from top to bottom did their work defensively. Really proud of the group.”
“We talked about being organized,” Brad Guzan added, “talking to each other, communicating and ultimately being intense getting in guys faces and making it difficult for our opposition regardless if it was New York City or Red Bulls. From the start of this playoff run, we talked about having to be harder to play against and tougher in all aspects of the game and we have showed that in four games now.”
It may not have been their usual style, but the players pointed out having that flexibility to play more than one way has been huge in their postseason run so far.
“We essentially played with wing backs and five in the back in the first leg and we scored three goals and we could’ve had more,” Guzan said. “We have been able to go between systems throughout the season. I think that is a strength of ours being able to go from one system to another.”
“I feel great, we all feel confident and that’s what I think you need,” added Greg Garza. “You need those different things within the playoffs and I think all of us have a good head on our shoulders and we’re able to stay calm and compact and we’ve done that the past few games.”
But Five Stripes fans won’t remember what was a tight, defensive performance. What they will remember is their team moving past a team they’d never beaten before to clinch a spot in MLS Cup for the first time ever. But there is still unfinished business.
“It is tough to describe,” Parkhurst said. “It has been a long season, it has been a great season, and we fought hard. That is a fantastic Red Bull team. I have said it before, they are the best team in MLS history and we played as best as we could’ve against them over two legs. That is really tough to do, so really proud of the boys and I think we’ve got one more big fight left in us.”
“Ultimately we want to win MLS Cup, so this is just part of the journey to get to MLS Cup, to get to a final. All of our hard work throughout the season now allows us to host the final. That is important and doesn’t go un-noticed, so now we put ourselves in a position to hopefully go and raise a trophy in our home city.”
The MLS Cup Final kicks off at 8pm EST on Saturday December 8th at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Limited tickets are still available, so make sure you’ve reserved your spot here.