Atlanta United was full steam ahead Thursday preparing for the team’s final regular season match of the 2023 season. Decision Day, the final matchday of the MLS regular season, is Saturday, Oct. 21. With a spot already clinched in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs, it’s now a matter of finishing out the regular season on a strong note and finding out which Eastern Conference opponent Atlanta United will face in the Round One Best-of-3 series.
With playoffs on the horizon, Thursday’s session at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground was focused and intense – but not without cause for celebration. After a good training session, which included the return of Jamal Thiaré healthy after going through concussion protocol and most of the players who were away playing internationally during the FIFA window, the team had a small celebration for head coach Gonzalo Pineda’s birthday.
As the team went into the building, piñatas were set up for the head coach. This writer didn’t get to witness the celebration firsthand since media availability began shortly after, but we all heard the pops of the bat hitting a piñata and bursts of laughter. (Our digital team covered it all, which you can watch here.)
Soon enough, Pineda met with the media to discuss his team’s upcoming Decision Day meeting and the approach heading into MLS Cup Playoffs. Here are a few of the storylines from this week at the Training Ground:
Facing the 2023 Supporters’ Shield winners
Before the postseason begins, Atlanta United first has to finish up the MLS regular season, which means a big task ahead. Atlanta United hits the road to take on FC Cincinnati on Saturday, Oct. 21. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. and will air on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.
The final match of the regular season is against none other than the top team in the Eastern Conference. FC Cincinnati has already secured the No. 1 seed in the conference and has also already won a trophy this year – the club wrapped the regular season with the best record in the league, winning the Supporters’ Shield for the first time in club history.
Atlanta United has secured a postseason berth, which means the club might have less to push for Saturday than some teams hovering around the playoff line and still in the hunt. However, this Atlanta United group sees the challenge ahead against FC Cincinnati on the road as a jumping off point for MLS Cup Playoffs, even with a ticket to playoffs already punched.
“It doesn’t affect anything,” midfielder Matheus Rossetto said. “We know Saturday is important for us. FC Cincinnati is a good team, so it’s going to be a good test for us. We’re going to go there and try to get three points, even though the result won’t affect a lot.”
FC Cincinnati won the Supporters Shield on October 4, earning the title for best in the MLS regular season with 65 points in the table. The Orange and Blue also got the better end in the first meeting between the two sides, defeating Atlanta United 2-1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on August 30. Even though FC Cincinnati has locked up its spot and achieved a great deal in 2023, Atlanta United heads into Decision Day expecting a tough, competitive match on the road.
“We know the first game will be away in playoffs, so we can take this one as the best preseason we can have against the best team in the league away,” Pineda said.
MLS Cup Playoffs coming soon
Every MLS side plays on Decision Day, and undoubtedly we’ll be keeping an eye on the standings and some of the other matchups. Only the No. 1 and 2 seeds in the Eastern Conference have been clinched (FC Cincinnati and Orlando City SC). The rest of the playoff seeding will be determined Saturday.
No matter Saturday’s result, Atlanta United will finish either the No. 5, 6 or 7 seed in the conference. (Atlanta can finish no lower than seventh, which means they will not play in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Wild Card game.) Tiebreakers in the standings are determined by games won first, goal differential second.
Depending on where the cards fall Saturday, that means Atlanta United has three possibilities for their opponent in Round One of the MLS Cup Playoffs. The 5-Stripes will likely face either Orlando City SC, Philadelphia Union or Columbus Crew in the Round One Best-of-3 series. And when asked whether there is an opponent that Atlanta United would prefer to face, Rossetto answered firmly, “No.”
“We’re still working on all the things that we want to do, trying to correct all those small, little details,” Rossetto said. “For us, we feel that this is a good warm-up game for the playoffs.”
With the playoff opponent yet to be determined, Atlanta United is focusing on themselves. This week, the team used training to work on their reactions and timing. Most importantly for Pineda, he and his coaching staff are focused on preparing the mentality and keeping the team sharp heading into a potential playoff run.
“It’s understanding that the reactions, the mentality, the concentration, the focus has to be there in every action. That’s the playoffs mentality,” Pineda said.
For more on what to expect for Atlanta United in the MLS Cup Playoffs, read our explainer here.
Hosting a home playoff match
With the new playoff format introduced this season, Round One now consists of a Best-of-3 series. Whoever Atlanta draws for Round One, they will play at least two matches. The first team to win two out of three matches will advance to the next round, which is single elimination.
(If a match is tied at the end of regulation, no extra time will be played, teams will participate in kicks from the penalty spot to determine the winner.)
The higher seed hosts the first and third matches in the Best-of-3 series, which means that Atlanta United will host a playoff match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The playoff schedule, and specific date for the match played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, has yet to be set but is expected to be announced after seeding is finalized on Decision Day.
Hosting a playoff match at their home venue is a prospect the team is looking forward to. However, Atlanta United won’t have home field advantage for the series and is also preparing for playing significant matches on the road.
“It’s always nice to be able to play the first game at home,” Rossetto said. “But for us, I don’t think it’s going to affect us. It doesn’t matter who we play, we’re all very excited as a group for the playoffs. Whether we play home or away, it doesn’t matter.”
The road match against FC Cincinnati can help the team prepare in that way. On Thursday, Pineda explained that this Decision Day meeting with FC Cincinnati is almost a “preseason” match for playoffs. He said he’s using this game to help his team value the importance of securing three points away, which means staying poised in big moments, closing out games and not switching off mentally.
The head coach also said that he’s reminded his team winning Match 1 on the road in the Round One Best-of-3 series means his team could put themselves in position to close out the series at home. In fact, Pineda said beating FC Cincinnati on the road could be seen as a statement win heading into MLS Cup Playoffs:
“If we beat Cincinnati, which is a big, big task, we send a statement that whoever we face in the next stage, and then we beat them, then they have to come to the Benz, and now it’s a double-edged sword. It can be an advantage for us if we win the first one, then we come here and we secure the spot winning at home.”
Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs
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