It’s been a long wait, but it’s finally here. The Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs have officially begun, and Atlanta United is ready to kick off Round One on Wednesday against Columbus Crew. The first match of the Best-of-3 series will take place at Lower.com Field in Ohio.
Following the conclusion of the season on Decision Day, the 5-Stripes have spent the past week preparing for their Round One opponent here at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground. Atlanta earned a point in its final match at FC Cincinnati and used training to prepare for another road test on Wednesday.
Atlanta’s match at Columbus is the last Game 1 of Round One, so the excitement and anticipation to get out on the pitch has been growing for the 5-Stripes all week. Head coach Gonzalo Pineda and defenders Luis Abram and Brooks Lennon spoke with media about how they plan to take on Columbus and start the playoffs on the right note.
Coming off the regular season
In Atlanta’s final three matches of the regular season, they faced No. 4 Philadelphia Union, No. 3 Columbus Crew and No. 1 FC Cincinnati. The results were one loss and two draws. And while the outcomes weren’t exactly what the team was hoping for to close out the season, Pineda said there are still positives they can take away from those matches, especially facing Columbus again.
“The last game against Cincinnati, 11v11 we were better,” he said. “We had better moments than the best team in the league. The players know that we can be a dangerous team, a team that is tough to beat. Throughout the season, we were tough to beat, so that gives us confidence.”
Pineda clarified 11v11 because Thiago Almada received a red card early in the second half of the match, leaving Atlanta down a man for nearly 40 minutes. The red card carries into the playoffs, meaning Almada will be suspended for the first match against Columbus.
The absence of Almada will definitely impact how Atlanta approaches Game 1, according to Pineda. As the center attacking midfielder, Almada heavily controls the flow of the midfield and progressing the ball from the defensive to attacking third. Pineda said the coaching staff is evaluating different formations and game tactics to use Wednesday night.
“It’s really hard to replicate exactly the quality that Thiago has,” Pineda said. “So, we have to rely more on the team and playing as a team. And we normally do that, but specifically for that area of the field where Thiago takes care of. He’s creative and understands the movement and the space, but we’ll come up with a good plan.”
Figuring out the first round
Round One of this year’s playoffs presents many challenges for Atlanta. With the away-home-away format, the 5-Stripes will have to win at least one match on the road in order to advance to the conference semifinals. They only won three away matches all season.
Of the seven matches that have already been played in these playoffs, the home side has won six of them. Despite how difficult winning on the road can be in MLS, Atlanta remains confident and up for the challenge, especially if they can accomplish it sooner rather than later.
“Obviously it’s a Best-of-3 series, but we’re going to try to take care of it in two games,” Abram said. “For me, it’s an interesting format. The fact that both teams get to play home and away, that makes it interesting.”
Another layer of drama is what happens when the match is tied after regulation. In the Best-of-3 series format, a tie means the match will go straight to penalty kicks—with no periods of extra time. So far, no matches in Round One have gone to penalties, only the Western Conference Wild Card match.
Atlanta went to penalty kicks once this year in Leagues Cup against Cruz Azul and lost 5-4. Pineda said the staff tries to replicate the pressure of a shootout as much as possible during training, but the most they can do is encourage the players to remain focused and positive, should they go to penalties in a playoff match.
“We try to give them some mental guidance on what they have to put their attention and focus on in that specific moment,” he said. “We’re not thinking ‘What if I miss?’ No, you have to put your focus on the little details. What’s your angle? Where are you going to put the ball?”
Fortunately, the team has had the longest amount of time to prepare for its first match. Lennon said the break has been beneficial, but now they’re itching to get out on the pitch.
“We’ve used that time to really go over the fine details of how we’re going to be successful Wednesday night,” Lennon said. “I feel like we’re the most prepared we’ve been for a game this season. On the opposite of that, it’s a little frustrating because you see these teams playing, and you want to be out there playing. It’s just a waiting game at this point.”
Wednesday’s match will be the third time Atlanta faces Columbus Crew this year. Columbus took the first win early in the season, and the sides played to a 1-1 draw earlier this month at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Both clubs are high-scoring, possession-based teams, so Pineda said it will be less about the tactics and more about who wants it the most.
“It’s interesting, the similar rosters, similar ideas, similar identities,” he said. “When that happens, I would say it’s even more up to the players. ‘This is my individual battle here, my area, our midfield versus their midfield.’ Who’s going to win that battle? Who’s going to want it more? Who really wants to succeed? We’re probably going to neutralize each other with the tactics. It’s just up to the players."
As Lennon mentioned, the team’s recent training sessions have been all about the little details. Columbus was the only team in the league to score more goals than Atlanta, so the sharpness has to start with the defense. In its last match, Atlanta gave up two leads by letting Cincinnati get to the ball first and score off crosses.
“I think the little details are what’s costing us and allowing us to concede goals,” Abram said. “I think we played a good game against Cincinnati, but it’s just those small details that we’re trying to correct.”
As important as the last week of training has been, Pineda said the biggest thing the team needs as they transition from regular to postseason is the right mentality. He mentioned the way the team fought and didn’t concede after going down to 10 men against Cincinnati shows what they are capable of come Wednesday and beyond.
“The challenge is the mental battle that you go through in those moments, those stages of the game,” Pineda said. “Scoring goals, conceding goals, what happens after, the reactions. Of course, tactics and all that is important, but in playoffs it’s about, on that given day, how can you be better than the opponent?”