The temperature is cooling off here in Atlanta, but the competition is heating up as the MLS regular season races to a close. With only three matches remaining, Atlanta United is focused on collecting all nine points before heading into playoffs.
The 5-Stripes kicked off the week with a training session on Monday at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground ahead of its double matchweek. Atlanta will face Philadelphia Union on the road Wednesday before ending the week at home against Columbus Crew.
Both clubs sit above Atlanta in the Eastern Conference standings, but only two points separate the three teams. This week’s matches are crucial for Atlanta to help achieve its goal of finishing the year within the top four.
Head coach Gonzalo Pineda and a few Atlanta United players spoke to media about their mindset heading into the final matches and how the team has improved throughout the season. Here are some of the main storylines from Monday:
Fight for top four
Atlanta secured its spot in the 2023 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs two weeks ago with a dominating 4-1 win over CF Montréal. After the match, Pineda explained that while it was a great accomplishment, the group was not even close to achieving all the goals it had set for the season.
The team’s next task is moving up into one of the top four spots in the East. Those four teams will have home field advantage in the playoffs, including in the best-of-3 format in Round 1.
Three of the teams that currently occupy the top four, Philadelphia, Columbus and Cincinnati, are the same teams Atlanta will face in its final three matches of the season. Those clubs will be tough competition for Atlanta, but Pineda claims he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The last three, I think is the perfect schedule,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better than playing the fourth place, third place and then first place in the last game. It’s perfect. It’s kind of a preseason for playoffs. Those are going to be finals. Those are going to be intense. Those are going to prepare us fantastically for what is coming.”
The confidence of the team has continued to build since returning from the Leagues Cup break. In the seven matches since then, Atlanta has a record of 4-1-2 (W-L-D) and collected 14 points. They’ve also been lethal in their attack, outscoring their opponents 19-8.
Pineda said they have to keep their foot on the gas and stay focused on their goal. He recognized they have the opportunity to control their own fate and not rely on the results of other teams, and they must take advantage of that.
“It’s about the commitment and being fully committed to the mission to finish top-four,” he said. “Now that that is in our hands, I can see that the players are committed, and that’s the most important part.”
Wednesday’s match will be the second matchup of the season between Atlanta and Philadelphia. The 5-Stripes took care of business at home in July by beating Philly 2-0. Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan said the team did a lot of things well in that match that they need to take with them on Wednesday.
“How we imposed ourselves on them as opposed to waiting for the game to come to us was huge,” Guzan said. “It’s just understanding how we want to try to exploit their weaknesses and doing that consistently over the course of 90 minutes. Their transitional play is extremely good. You’ve got to make sure defensively you’re ready, even when we’re attacking.”
Philadelphia has only dropped one match at home this year with a home record of 9-1-5. Historically, Atlanta hasn’t been too successful when playing the Union on the road; the last time Atlanta won at Subaru Park was in 2018. Atlanta’s most recent trip there last season ended in a 4-1 loss.
However, the Union has drawn its last five matches in a row, including three at home. Atlanta has a positive mindset heading into the match, especially considering a win could leap them into fourth place.
“We’re going to be going up there with confidence,” Guzan said. “We know it’s going to be a fight. It’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be a tough game for all the reasons I mentioned earlier. But in saying that, I feel we’re in a good spot.”
United on and off the pitch
It’s undeniable how in synch Atlanta has looked over the last few months, and the new signings have played a large part in that success. Saba Lobjanidze, Tristan Muyumba and Xande Silva have scored six goals and recorded six assists within the seven matches they’ve played.
“It’s so exciting, and I’m so happy about that,” Lobjanidze said about the performance of the team and himself. “I’ve said before, I love competition, and we’re going for the championship, so it’s great.”
A lot of the team comradery on the pitch starts off of it. Lobjanidze explained that everyone, from the players to the coaches to Atlanta’s kitchen and training staff, has helped him adapt to the new environment. Even Pineda mentioned that the team looks happy during training sessions, which often include laughter and joking.
Guzan said that the team, and especially him as the captain, know that making their new teammates comfortable from the minute they join is the key in creating cohesion when they take the field.
“We do a good job as a club in terms of helping them off the field, whether it be housing, car, bank accounts, all these things that you probably don’t think about when a new player comes to this country,” Guzan said. “Different restaurants to go to, areas of the city to go to, so they’re not just cooped up in a hotel room.
“When you’re asking and demanding what we are of those guys to do on the field,” he continued, “you have to make sure that they feel comfortable and feel part of the group off the field. They’ve been able to do that, and we as a group have been able to help them settle.”