Any matchweek at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training Ground has an air of intensity. But it’s always turned up a level leading up to MLS Cup Playoffs, and that was noticeable to the players and their manager.
“They look really good I have to admit,” Frank de Boer told reporters. “Everybody is really focused. They know it can be over in one game. You fought so hard to come to the playoffs, you want to continue for as long as possible. You can’t relax right now.”
“The group as a whole looks sharp,” added Jeff Larentowicz. “That’s a very encouraging thing. Out of nowhere something can happen where you need somebody. Top to bottom, everybody was ready to go. It always feels different when we walk out onto the pitch at Mercedes-Benz, but when the training sessions are good here, we know we can carry that to the match.”
The postseason can hinge on any moment, so the team says they’ve been working on the little things that can change a match: tightening things up on set pieces, and being prepared for the possibility of penalty kicks. But this team has been honing tactics all year long –– they learned last year that postseason success is about more than that.
“Whoever doesn’t have that mentality in these games where you either move on or go home should choose a different profession,” said Josef Martinez, through a translator. “You have to have a winning mentality. I don’t care if it’s against Real Madrid, Liverpool, you have to win anyway. We’re at home, with our fans, and whoever doesn’t have that mentality can go home and start their vacation already. There is no other mentality.”
“You look at ten 1-v-1 battles all over the field and you have to win seven or eight of those to win the game,” Larentowicz added. “It’s not necessarily tactics, but it’s going into the game and beating the guy in front of you. Last year, from Yankee Stadium on we really focused on that and defended as a team. We won those battles and it carried us through. Our talent in the attack were able to do what they always did. Mainly because behind them, we had the foundation of the guys winning those battles and creating those opportunities going forward. We have to do that again this year.”
Much of the headlines this week focused on the absence of Miles Robinson, but while the players acknowledged his importance to the team, they emphasized the depth of their squad and how every member of the roster was ready to step up for the postseason.
“We have to have one mentality: to win,” Martinez said. “Regardless who plays or doesn’t.”
Atlanta United does come into the match with an advantage, with an entire team experienced in knockout competition. They’ll rely on that experience again this week.
“I think it helped our team this year,” Julian Gressel said. “We were always there and at our best in those games. The early rounds of the Open Cup are a bit different, but then we went to Orlando and took care of business. Played at home in Final and took care of business and played really well. We played a really good game against Club America and came out on top. Those things help. I’m pretty confident that we will be at our best when it really matters, and the time is now.”
But despite having three trophies in the cabinet already in the past year, this team is hungrier than ever –– and ready to defend their throne.
“We are still chasing a championship,” Gressel added. “You always want to win. It feels good to be the defending champion for a few more weeks, and hopefully we can extend the run for another year… We want to make a run here. Guys that needed some work in the training room got that time, guys that feel good where they are, they keep doing the same thing. The mood in the group when we train has been good, it’s been sharp. We are looking forward to it and want to get this big game off our chest that’s for sure.”
Atlanta United’s postseason run starts at Mercedes-Benz Stadium at 1 p.m. ET Saturday against the New England Revolution. Make sure you reserve your tickets here, or if you can’t make the trip, click here for all the ways to tune in from home.