ATLANTA – It was a sunny Saturday morning at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground where the autumn leaves falling from the trees mixed in with a lively and spirited training session for Atlanta United FC, ahead of their trip to Ohio to face FC Cincinnati for the last match of the 2021 MLS regular season.
The Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs are around the corner for a team that a few months ago did not have the postseason secured, but has managed to turn its season around, and is currently still fighting to secure a home Playoff match. With a win vs Cincinnati, and a New York City FC loss against Philadelphia Union, Atlanta United could host Round One of the postseason at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“We need to try to push forward for that Playoff match at home, and that’s the mentality of the team and that’s what they have in their minds,” said head coach Gonzalo Pineda following the team’s last regular season training session. “Today was an energetic and fun session, but at the same time the players know tomorrow is going to be business”.
Back in September, Cincinnati relieved the duties of its head coach Jaap Stam who was replaced by former Jamaican international and MLS defender Tyrone Marshall. Since Marshall’s interim appointment, FC Cincinnati has lost every single one of their eight matches and currently sits last overall in the MLS standings with 20 points.
However, Pineda understands why they shouldn’t underestimate their opponent.
“First of all, we have to respect Cincinnati, because we’ve seen many comments about how this game is going to be an easy one”, added Pineda during media availability Saturday morning. “We’re facing a team with a new coach, some players that are fighting for their contracts for next season, they’re playing at home, so it’s not going to be easy at all.”
Atlanta United is coming back from a hard-fought draw in the team’s visit to New York Red Bulls, where the players showed how strong they can be defensively. Against Cincinnati the team needs to continue to be strong in the back while creating chances, something Atlanta was criticized for on their trip to New Jersey after only registering two shots against the Red Bulls.
“Since I’m here, there were games when we weren’t good enough in terms of performance, regardless of the results. But the application of the players has been very good since I’m here. They know tomorrow is going to be business, we have to play on the front foot, being aggressive on and off the ball,” added Pineda.
The training session on Saturday ended with the traditional fun scrimmage ‘cascarita’, where the players are split into teams and compete against each other. It’s a moment to clear off their minds a little, bring the players back to what made them fall in love with the game they have played since they were children, and lift some of the pressure of going into the Playoffs.
However, the players have placed the focus entirely on Sunday’s match against Cincinnati to be fully prepared for what comes next.
“We are Atlanta and we have the obligation to qualify for the Playoffs,” said midfielder Franco Ibarra following Saturday’s training session. “It’s been harder when we’ve had players who couldn’t play because of injury but it is our responsibility to play each game and win it as if it was a final.”
The biggest motivation for Sunday, apart from clinching a Playoff spot, is that regardless of who the opponent is for Round One of the Playoffs, the team is focused on the possibility of playing a home match.
“I think we’re just going [to Cincinnati] with the intent to win. Given the standings, we can still get that home Playoff game, that would be so big for us and that’s kind of the mentality we’re going with,” said defender Miles Robinson. “It’s been a long season, filled with ups and downs. We’re definitely focused in tomorrow’s opponent and hopefully the Playoffs. We’re definitely going to grind the next few weeks, and I think this is a team that can have great success when we’re all dialed in, focused and playing for each other.”
A season of grit
It hasn’t been an easy season for Atlanta United. The fact that 2021 began with and is ending with a different coaching staff is proof of how the club has turned the season around.
Before Pineda was appointed as head coach in August, after Gabriel Heinze was let go and assistant coach Rob Valentino lead the turnaround as he held the reins as interim, the club was not in the Playoff picture and the path to the postseason wasn’t clear. It’s something that the players have felt which has also helped them be in the position they are in now.
“With the coaching changes and getting some sessions under our belts, we’ve kind of focused on staying positive throughout the ups and downs during the season,” said Robinson. “I think it was a matter of us coming together and saying, ‘listen, we potentially have four or five games left of the season and it’s just a matter of dialing in every minute of the games and going as far as possible’”.
“We’ve had new additions, injuries, setbacks, but I think we’ll just continue to learn from one another and grow in a positive direction.”
Robinson will remain in Cincinnati following the match to stay in camp with the U.S. Men’s National Team ahead of their crucial CONCACAF World Cup qualifier match against Mexico at TQL Stadium, next Friday, November 12. He will be back in Atlanta, however, just in time for the first round of the Playoffs which kicks off November 20th.
“It’s not ideal to interrupt the preparation but most of the teams in the Playoffs have international players, and I will try to prepare my players to the best of their abilities”, said Pineda when asked about the absences during the next two weeks of Robinson and Ronald Hernández, who got called up by Venezuela for their South American qualifier matches.
“In Playoffs, the tactics and quality of the players are very important, but the mentality and how you prepare your team to be on the front foot and be tough when they fall under pressure, is going to be my biggest concern. I don’t think it’s going to be difficult for them to get back after the international break,” said Pineda.
Coming into this match following a successful week for the Atlanta sports scene, after the Braves won the World Series, all eyes will be on Atlanta United with the hope of having a positive end to the regular season leading into the Playoffs.
“We’re a club that has won in the past, we have trophies, and we always strive for trophies,” said Robinson. “That’s the thing about this league, we can have a crazy year, filled with different coaches, bad losses, tough games, but in reality, nobody is going to remember that if we show up during these next few weeks.”
Sunday’s match against Cincinnati is part of MLS Decision Day, the last matchday of the regular season, and it’s scheduled to begin at 3:30 pm ET. All games from the Eastern Conference will kick off at the exact time, which means that if Atlanta United clinches a Playoff berth it will know its opponent for Round One a little past 6:00 pm ET.