Atlanta United is known for their slick passing, their creativity, and their electric counter-attacking style. But after a final stretch of the regular season where the physicality increased and ultimately ended in disappointment, the team knew they would have to show another side to achieve their postseason goals.
“As players, it wasn’t good enough in Toronto,” Brad Guzan said. “It wasn’t good enough when we played the (New York) Red Bulls away. We needed to prove to ourselves, and ultimately, prove to everyone on the outside, that in the tough games and the games that mean something in terms of playing against the top teams, that we can show up, and not only play good football, but that we can battle.”
That’s what postseason soccer is in MLS. With only four teams left in the field, all of them can play nice soccer. Sometimes the difference between winning and losing is the mentality to overcome adversity.
“We’ve just changed the mentality a little bit,” added captain Michael Parkhurst. “Right away, we set the tone that physically we were going to be in the game, that we weren’t going to back down and that we were going to win the fight. I thought that we did over both games. In the end, our soccer won out a little bit. They’re a very good team and very difficult to play against, so we’re very happy with the result.”
“I think the difference is our ability to fight, and scrap, and battle,” Guzan said. "In this league, you can’t expect the opposition to roll over and allow you to play how you want to play. So, if the game calls to battle, and fight, and get after it, then we showed that we can do that.”
So how does a team do that? Atlanta United wasn’t just flash this season –– they backed that up with one of the best defense in MLS. But they had to take things to another level, something they learned in last year's postseason.
“A little more gritty and hardworking, it all starts with those fundamentals and obviously the quality that comes through that,” Julian Gressel said. “It is a lot of intensity and hard work against the ball with the ball. That is what we try to focus on to have that on the field. You can play a bad pass and have bad moments, but that is what we wanted to show and then quality comes through that as well.”
“Just what playoff soccer is all about, the intensity you have to have,” Parkhurst added. “We’re not afraid to change up the style if we have to. We didn’t build out of the back much against NYCFC in either game compared to what we normally do in the regular season, and that’s OK. You have to adapt. If the playoff game calls for us to be a little bit safer out of the back and winning second balls and playing in their half of the field when we can, then that’s what we’re going to do if that’s going to help us win games.”
In a way, it’s a fitting warmup as the team looks to take on maybe the most physical team in the league in the New York Red Bulls. While it’s a team that has been a challenge for the Five Stripes in the past, the squad is motivated to prove there is plenty left to earn this season.
“It’s important [to make it this far], but that’s not our goal,” Guzan said. “Our goal is to win the MLS Cup, and this is one step along that way. It’s good. It feels good and everyone has a good feeling and spirit in the locker room, but at the same time, we’ve got to make sure we get down to work and get ready for the next series.”
And whatever challenge may come, rest assured the team will be up and ready for what’s next.
“It’s completely different,” Greg Garza told reporters after the match. “You’re playing the six best teams from each conference, so very intense games. It’s a different tournament, and we have to be prepared for every step that we take. The next two games will be the most important games this club has ever taken part of.”
The first leg of the Eastern Conference Finals kicks off at 5 p.m. EST on November 25th from Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Make sure you’re there to cheer on the squad in their hunt for postseason glory by reserving your tickets here.