Facing the media after Sunday night’s big opening-leg win over NYCFC at Yankee Stadium, it was clear Atlanta United head coach Tata Martino liked what he saw.
“That’s the way you have to play every game,” he said, through a translator. “Regular season or the playoffs, it doesn’t matter. That’s the attitude.”
That’s what the team emphasized all week leading up to the match. Heading on the road, on an uncommon pitch, there are plenty of things out of their control. So they focused on the things they could.
“It’s very, very difficult to play on this field,” said captain Michael Parkhurst after the match. “It’s a big challenge to come in here and get a good result, so we’re very happy with that. We talked that we want to play soccer and we want to play our game, but if we can’t or if the game doesn’t dictate it, we have to win the fight.”
The mentality was there from the opening whistle. Known for their skill and flair, Atlanta United showed their steely side to come out and go toe-to-toe in a physical, postseason atmosphere.
“It was the performance that we needed,” Parkhurst added. “It’s good that we came out here and we brought the fight. It was ugly out there for everyone at times. The pitch is tough to play on. But you have to win the fight.”
It's not all down to effort. There’s an added pressure in the postseason, one that compounds every decision a player makes. So it was important to make NYCFC earn their chances, not give them away.
“In a playoff game of 90 minutes or two legs of 180 minutes, the team who has the most success is the team that commits the fewest errors,” Martino said. “The message to the team was not to make costly mistakes because I know that if we can do that, I like our chances of winning.”
And Martino’s team responded, holding NYCFC without a single shot on target for the first time this season. That’s due in large part to shutting down NYCFC’s dynamic attacking partnership of Maxi Moralez and David Villa.
“I thought Eric [Remedi] did a fantastic job on [Moralez], always keeping an eye on him wherever he is,” Parkhurst said. “The three of us in the back also were trying to keep an eye on him to make sure that he couldn’t control the game in between the lines. The second half he was on the ball a little bit, but it was further away from our goal, so we can accept that. The guys, especially in the midfield, put a lot of work in, making sure he couldn’t dictate play.”
It was a great result, but in a two-legged tie, a win is only halfway to the desired goal –– and there’s plenty of work left to be done. So what’s the key to Atlanta United advancing to the next round of the playoffs for the first time in team history? Jeff Larentowicz offered his perspective as someone who’s been there before.
“It’s just concentration for 90 minutes every week,” he said after the match. “We said it coming into [Sunday]: no simple mistakes, no letting each other down, going back to the grit and determination that has gotten us here the last two years. If we come with that same energy, then we’ll be alright.”
The team’s focus is now fully on the second leg, with postseason advancement on the line. That one kicks off on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. EST at Mercedes-Benz Stadium –– and with more than 70,000 expected in attendance, this is one you can’t miss. Limited tickets are still available, so make sure you’ve reserved yours here.