Players wrapped up practice on Saturday taking shots on goal. They gathered at the top of the 18-yard box, then went up, one at a time, to strike a shot. It was a competitive game. Players from Argentina were egging on the players from Brazil. But in this game, players from those two nations were allies in one regard: neither wanted the players from Mexico to win.
That’s why the name “Cubo” reverberated over the pitch frequently during the game. Cubo is the nickname for Erick Torres, the forward from Guadalajara, Mexico. His teammates enjoyed giving him some lighthearted flack when he fell behind the game.
But Torres took the rivalry in stride. At one point, he did a quirky dance when a shot went his way. He celebrated by running over to Luiz Araújo, a neutral party who was next to the net serving the balls, and the two bumped chests.
Saturday’s practice was light, the team wrapping up an intense and tactically-driven week of preparation ahead of its Round One matchup against New York City FC in the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. Atlanta United finished training with free play and competition, then ate together at the Training Ground before leaving for the airport to fly to New York.
“We’ve been training very good,” head coach Gonzalo Pineda said. “The intensity has been there, and today the mood was very good. We’re happy with what we see. But obviously we need to be focused because tomorrow will be a very, very, very hard game.”
Pineda reviewed the methodology behind training this week. The first few days were more intense and demanding. The last two days were more tactical as the team went over game concepts.
For Saturday, he said it was about just letting his players play and love the game.
“Let them be happy, let them be free,” he said. “And then, they have a good mindset.”
Here are a few more observations from practice on Saturday at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground:
The Transition Game
The team has been preparing all week to play at Yankee Stadium, the smallest field in MLS. They’ve been practicing being sharp in the transition, not just setting up a counterattack but also learning when to release the ball quickly to escape pressure in certain areas of the field.
Transition play will be an important part of the match against NYCFC. The pace of play will be fast. Atlanta has spent time this week working on moving the ball around in tight spaces.
Against a team like NYCFC that plays well in transition, being ready for that pace will be just as crucial on the defensive side as sparking its own transition in the attack.
“We’re definitely prepared for defending in transition,” defender Miles Robinson said. “They’re a team that likes to break when they have an opportunity. They have great runners going forward. But it’s up to us to stay focused for every second of the 90 minutes in order to sniff out anything that comes offensively for them.”
With a smaller pitch and intense head-to-head matchup, Atlanta expects more turnovers and less time with the ball. Both teams will be looking to counter quickly, which makes it important for Atlanta United to win balls in the midfield.
Fortunately, that’s something the team does well. Atlanta finished the regular season with the best duel success rate in the league at 53.86%.
“The main part is trying to control the game and trying to play in the way we feel more comfortable,” Pineda said. “But obviously in front of us is another team that likes to play the same style. And that’s a challenge.”
Youth and Experience
With an average age of around 25, Atlanta United has one of the youngest rosters in MLS. Many youngsters will be making their first appearance in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Even some of the more experienced players, like Araújo, will be making their first appearance.
The players who last appeared in the MLS Cup Playoffs for Atlanta United that are still on the active roster are goalkeepers Brad Guzan and Alec Kann, striker Josef Martínez, midfielders Mo Adams and Ezequiel Barco, and defender Mikey Ambrose.
“A lot of the guys on our team are somewhat new to MLS Playoffs,” Robinson said. “But our quality can control the game if we can play to our standards.”
One player who isn’t new to the MLS Cup Playoffs is Barco, who met with the media on Saturday. The 22-year-old midfielder is young but was part of Atlanta United’s 2019 run to the Conference Finals. Barco started all three playoff matches that season.
“I think we just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing this year,” Barco said. “As a team, playing our style and the way we want to play.”
Pineda said that everyone is healthy and will be available for tomorrow's match, including Martínez, Marcelino Moreno and Santiago Sosa – all of whom have battled injuries on-and-off during the last few weeks.
Martínez’s experience will also be an important factor for Atlanta United on Sunday. The striker leads Atlanta with five career goals in the MLS Cup Playoffs and five career goals against New York City.
With one of the league’s best finishers on its side, and all four members of the attacking line known as “BAMM” available to see the pitch, Atlanta United will be looking to control the game and score early on Sunday.
“The intensity is going to be important for us,” Barco said. “Also for us to try and get an early goal in the game and be able to manage the game.”
Being A Tournament Team
Atlanta United enters Sunday’s match as the lower seed, and even though it ended the season with the same point total as NYCFC (51), the match being played at Yankee Stadium gives NYCFC an advantage.
“When anyone goes to Yankee Stadium, they’re going to be an underdog,” Robinson said.
NYCFC is more used to playing on the smaller pitch, going 6-1-2 in nine matches there this season. Not only does New York City have the home field advantage, it also has Valentín Castellanos, the 2021 Golden Boot winner. Of his league-leading 19 goals this season, the striker has scored nine of those at Yankee Stadium.
It’ll be important for Atlanta’s backline to understand where Castellanos is at all times during the match and try to prevent him from getting the ball.
“When you look at the quality of our guys, I think we’re going to be ready,” Robinson said. “We’re a team that’s eager to play in the playoffs. I think we’re a tournament team ready to put it all on the field tomorrow.”
The two Eastern Conference opponents know each other well. They met twice during the regular season, the second matchup as recent as Oct. 10 when they faced off at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and played to a 1-1 draw.
Both teams ended the regular season on strong runs. Atlanta United enters the MLS Cup Playoffs with the longest active unbeaten streak at six games. New York City has gone unbeaten in five games, a run that allowed them to best Atlanta and Orlando City for a top four finish in the conference.
"New York City is a really good team, so we know that they always make it difficult,” Barco said. “But we feel like we’re Atlanta United. We have to go there and be able to play toe-to-toe with these guys, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Even with a confident and eager squad, both Robinson and Barco gave a lot of respect to New York City FC. Atlanta expects a challenging matchup. Knowing what’s at stake with the “do or die” playoff format, the team’s focus and ability to execute its game plan will be key.
“That’s always the beauty of this game is that both teams have a game plan and both teams try to perform at the highest level,” Pineda said. “And we will see what happens tomorrow.”
Visit atlutd.com/playoffs for the latest information on Sunday’s Round One matchup.