ATLANTA — Are Atlanta United, now within a game of going back to MLS Cup, playing better than when they won it all a year ago? The answer may lie in the eye of the beholder. One thing is for sure, though, according to coach Frank de Boer, they are now more mature.
Last year’s MLS Cup-winning side under Tata Martino ran through, around and over its opponents, overwhelming visitors to Mercedes-Benz Stadium with physicality and knocking the door in with brute force.
De Boer says his team plays with a certain sophistication and nuance that his side lacked the last time the Philadelphia Union came to Atlanta and earned a hard-fought draw seven months ago. And that nuance was on display Thursday, as Atlanta deployed a 4-3-3 formation they haven’t used since mid-July and secured a 2-0 win the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.
“We've made big steps,” said De Boer after his team's win courtesy of goals from Julian Gressel and Josef Martinez. “We are [more] mature, we recognize moments when to press and when to come together. We also showed today playing four at the back that we can adapt very quickly to another system, and that's difficult for an opponent to consider... It was a very mature game today from us.”
As Atlanta pursues its third trophy of the season and potentially a historic back-to-back MLS Cup, the team is sharp and smells blood in the water — now just one home game away from reaching the final.
“It's 90 minutes, do or die, we're at home,” said midifielder Jeff Larentowicz of his team’s playoff attitude. “I think it's just the mentality that we have. I think it carried us through the end of the season last year and we're starting to get that feeling again, getting that taste.
“It's a mentality. It's a champions mentality that a lot of these guys have that come from other places and I think that the guys that have been around this league know what it takes, and we try to pull it all together.”
Larentowicz didn’t name names, but it’s hard not to think about the performances of Franco Escobar, who scored in the opening round of the playoffs, and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez solidifying the backline. Both players have had their ups and downs throughout the season, but de Boer said they perfectly personify the mentality of his team.
“[Escobar] is really concentrated, and I think also with Leo... when the tension is at the top and you're really concentrated, then normally good players will perform their best,” said De Boer. “I think he's doing that right now. He's really concentrated. He's not starting to think about the game when the referee starts it and blows his whistle. No, a few days before, he's already ready for this game.
“I think we are growing in our strength," added De Boer. “I still think we can do better, like 90 minutes of total domination, but still I'm very happy with the progress of the whole season.”