Josef Martinez - Atlanta United - Looking mean

MARIETTA, Ga. — By any reasonable standard, Atlanta United have had a successful 2019 season. Whether it’s winning the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup for the first time in club history (and thereby qualifying for the 2020 Concacaf Champions League) or becoming the first MLS club to win the newly-established Campeones Cup, several of the team’s objectives for the season have a checkmark next to them.

“Up to this point, I'm very proud of what we've achieved this season. I'm proud of what the team has done,” said Atlanta's MVP candidate Josef Martinez through a translator at the team’s training facility Tuesday.

“But these are the games that are the most important,” Martinez said of the impending Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. “These are the games that determine the season — that decide the playoffs.”

One year removed from the team embarking on a run to an MLS Cup title, there’s a different vibe around the club as the playoffs approach. 2018 was colored with a sense of urgency after Atlanta United let the Supporters' Shield slip out of its grasp on Decision Day presented by AT&T and then-manager Tata Martino was publicly on his way out. This year, the team is coming off several successes, the least of which is a Decision Day victory over the New England Revolution -- the very team they’ll meet in the first round on Saturday (1 pm ET | Univision in US; TSN in Canada).

“Having the break, going through that stretch [in August] which almost felt like the playoffs because you're playing so many games and running up to a Cup — bouncing back from that was difficult, and I think the results show it,” Jeff Larentowicz told reporters Tuesday. “But I think we're refocused now. I think that we've gotten beyond that — over the hump, so to speak — and now we're ready to roll into this next chapter.”

That next chapter has the team’s full focus, despite the successes they've already achieved. If anything, players are attempting to control their energy to channel it solely toward the team’s rematch with the Revolution. 

“With the two weeks, it's kind of a hurry-up-and-wait situation,” said Larentowicz. “It's like shaking a soda can. You shake it a little bit, you shake it a little bit, and then you finally pop it. That's how you want your mind to be when you're getting ready for these games. We've been shaking that can for two weeks now, so everyone's really waiting to get out there because we want to attack the game.”

Martinez joked that he’s been relaxing by having a glass of rum in the evenings this week, but stressed that his team will be ready. During the team’s U.S. Open Cup run this summer, Martinez said he and his teammates must “play with a knife between your teeth,” and Tuesday, said it’s more important than ever.

“Whoever doesn't have that mentality in a one-game win-or-lose situation, they should choose another profession,” said Martinez. “Because in these games, that's the only mentality that you have to have. It doesn't matter who you're playing — Real Madrid, Liverpool — it doesn't matter. We need that mentality, and if not, you can go home.”