Atlanta United players not settling for playoff spot, hungry for more

In the midst of redefining home-field advantage, setting records as an expansion side and officially clinching a playoff spot, Atlanta United know that there is much more ahead.

Head coach Tata Martino says it’s all been part of the plan, “I’d be lying if I said that [making the playoffs] wasn’t one of the expectations for the season because we have really good players and I knew the type of players that we were going to be bringing in. In Bradenton, we started to work together towards that goal. I don’t think it’s fair to use the excuse, ‘Only a few teams have made the playoffs as an expansion team.’ We knew the kind of players we were bringing in."

And when asked about resting those players, Martino had one answer: “We’re going to try and go for that second spot.”

Julian Gressel, a man Martino selected to fill in for the injured Almirón, showed again on Wednesday night why he is a contender for MLS Rookie of the year. The young German echoed Tata’s remarks about the team’s ambition.

“We never really saw ourselves as a team like ‘Let’s just see where it goes’,” said Gressel. “From the first day on, we wanted to be in the playoffs. I think that shows the determination and togetherness that we have all towards that one goal that came true. We’ll see where we can go from here, maybe talking a little more records for expansion teams in the near future.”

The German added, “We said it tonight: we wanted it to be in our hands. We wanted to clinch it today (and not look) at other teams. We did that and took care of business ourselves. Now, we’re in the playoffs. Now, we — maybe, yeah — can push for that second place in the East and try and get a bye and obviously get a home game in the second round.”

It was a monumental night for the Five Stripes, and it’s the team’s fearless leaders that continue to rally their squad time and time again to reach yet another milestone. Stepping in as team captain for the night in place of the resting Michael Parkhurst, MLS veteran Jeff Larentowicz reiterated the club’s goals from the beginning and praised his team’s persistent effort in getting there.

“We’re in the playoffs,” said the 34-year-old. “We’ve been focusing on it all year. It’s been our goal. We’ve had ups and downs but I think that this stretch we really just pushed and got ourselves over the edge. It’s a huge accomplishment for us.”

A key piece in their six-match unbeaten run inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium is leading goal-scorer Josef Martinez, who has tallied nine goals in that stretch and 18 total on the year. But the Venezuelan international was quick to disregard any satisfaction with their playoff berth because he knows there is more work to be done.

Now, we have accomplished one of the goals that we set this season, but we have to keep working hard because there is more to come,” said Martinez through a translator. “If we make the final, that would be great, but at the moment, we have to take it game by game. I think what we have to do is keep working hard and keep up this brotherhood that we have on the field, and try to complete our next objective.”

The brotherhood grew even stronger on Wednesday night as they regained a vital piece to the puzzle with defender Greg Garza appearing as a second half sub. While the U.S. international is happy with his return from his three-match injury, he’s hungry to finish the season stronger than they’ve started.

“I’m glad we got the win to clinch playoffs but we have to think about the future now,” said Garza. “The playoffs are a different animal so we’ve got to finish the league strong and hopefully be ready for the big playoff stretch.”

Atlanta United will continue to chase a higher playoff seed as they travel to New England this weekend to face the Revolution on Saturday night. You can catch all the action starting at 7:30 p.m. EST on FOX Sports Southeast or via FOX Sports GO.