Atlanta United has spent their inaugural year overcoming nearly every obstacle in front of them, but they face their toughest test Thursday: a do-or-die knockout playoff match against the Columbus Crew. It can be difficult to prepare for the tension of a playoff game, but the squad has done everything they can to prepare.
“I think [the key] is just being well-drilled and a well-oiled machine going into the game, to know our roles and responsibilities,” defender Chris McCann said this week. “Tata and the staff have done their homework on them, they’ve researched them thoroughly and then they give us all the information we need to go implement the job out on the field.”
Columbus enter the game one of the hottest teams in the league, unbeaten in their last ten regular season matches. That form starts with their potent attacking trio of Justin Meram, Federico Higuaín and Ola Kamara, but the team is much more than that.
“We understand that those three players for Columbus are their three most influential,” said head coach Tata Martino, “but they play in a style where they like to build out of the back starting with their goalkeeper. So we have to do our best to cut out the passes all the way up to those three guys.
However, it’s more than just the team lining up opposite the Five Stripes. Any player who’s played in a playoff game will tell you it’s a different beast, a cauldron of pressure with the fate of your season on the line. Fortunately, the Five Stripes will have the Mercedes-Benz Stadium crowd behind them.
“It’s always important to play at home, for Atlanta but also everyone else in the league,” Josef Martinez told reporters through a translator. “I think everyone has seen this season that teams play differently at home.”
Success can also depend on veteran leadership, with the players who have been in this situation proving to be a vital presence in the locker room.
“There’s always conversations amongst guys, senior players to more inexperienced players, to understand what a playoff game is like and what it feels like,” Brad Guzan said. “It becomes closer, tighter, harder, maybe the games aren’t as open as a regular season game. Knowing that after the final whistle, that’s it, it’s win or go home.”
But don’t expect Atlanta United to change how they play. They’ll rely on the same attacking style that got them into this position in the postseason.
“We’re going to go into this game doing our own thing, just playing like we have all season,” said Miguel Almirón through a translator. “We have some experienced guys on this team who have played in tough games before and have played in Europe. So we have the experience and I think that’s really good to have a united group and a talented group to face the playoffs.”
And make no mistake; this team is confident and remains as ambitious as ever as they head into the club’s first postseason.
“For us, we want to win,” Leandro González Pirez said. “We want the league. We’ve taken one step, qualifying for the playoffs. Now we want more.”
Atlanta United will kick off their first ever playoff run Thursday at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are available here, or if you can’t make it in person, make sure to tune in on ESPN2, Unimás or the Watch ESPN App.