Atlanta United may be coming off a championship season, but it’s a new year and a new challenge as they they compete in international competition for the first time Thursday in the opening round of the Concacaf Champions League. The Five Stripes travel to Costa Rica to face a tough CS Herediano side, and while they’ve now made hardware a standard for the club, the team knows you must lock in and take every competition match by match.

“I think right now we’re focused on winning the first game. Getting the first result,” said midfielder Jeff Larentowicz. “You see last year, and even the year before, you have to get past the first game in a playoff to make it to a final. And as much as it’s encouraging that people have faith in us in that way, it’s important that we focus on the task at hand.”

With new additions to the squad and a new head coach at the helm, the team has had some adjusting to do. Even with their first competitive match still to be played, preseason has shown promising signs of quick integration.

“The group is looking great I have to admit,” said gaffer Frank de Boer, “we’ve had a very good preseason. We want to see the players execute the things that we’ve done in training. Of course, we can still improve. But I think everyone is on the same page right now. We’re excited to play for something. It’s a new tournament for us, so we’re very excited to start as it’s our first official match of the season.”

While it’s clear the team is mentally ready to kick off their 2019 campaign, Concacaf competition is always difficult, particularly on the road with tough environments and scrappy, passionate opponents – just the conditions they will be facing Thursday night in Costa Rica.

“Concacaf is a beast,” said Michael Parkhurst. “People that aren’t used to it think that it should be easy for the U.S. teams to qualify, that it should be easy for U.S. teams to go to Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and beat teams easily. And it’s just not the case. These guys, when they play against MLS teams, the U.S., they play the best games of their lives, of their year. They play with passion and pride. You go down there, and if the fields are grass, it’s thick. If it’s turf, it’s hard.”

“We have to adapt to all of those circumstances – and we have to accept them,” said de Boer. “I think we have more quality, but more quality doesn’t always win. If you don’t put the same energy into the game as them, then we’re going to have a very difficult evening, that’s for sure.”

Though confident for the test and prepared for the hostile conditions, Thursday’s opponent will pose quite the challenge for the Concacaf newcomers – awaiting them are reigning Costa Rican champions CS Herediano.

“They’re a team that plays with passion. Plays with heart. They fight hard,” said Parkhurst. “We understand that they’ve lost a couple of their better players since they qualified for this tournament but that they’re a team that can pose challenges, especially physically. A bigger team. If we don’t have the right mentality of being ready for the fight they can be difficult to play against. But we also expect to go down there and dominate the game, dictate the game, be on the ball, and we want to put that on us and put the pressure on them and I think if we go down there with the right attitude we can do that.”

It’s the first competitive match of the year for Atlanta United and the 90 minutes that will set the tone for 2019. Make sure to follow the match by watching on YahooSports.com or by listening on 92.9 The Game or the Atlanta United App. Click here for all the details on how to tune in.