ATLANTA — Despite winning the Campeones Cup over Club America and claiming its second piece of silverware in eight months on Wednesday, the road ahead of Atlanta United only gets trickier with a slew of pivotal matches, including another cup final.
Atlanta’s playoff standing will largely be determined by how effectively the team can carry the type of performance on display Wednesday night in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on the road against teams with scores to settle. Sunday, Atlanta plays visits Providence Park (10 pm ET | FS1, TSN2) to face a Portland Timbers team it dispatched in the 2018 MLS Cup. Then it’s back to Orlando for a league encounter in the same stadium where they recently knocked off a surging Orlando City in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals.
"You gotta win the games, period. We're chasing Philly for sure, but we're also trying to win road games, which we haven't done,” said Jeff Larentowicz in the mixed zone after having lifted the Campeones Cup trophy Wednesday night. “Portland is a huge test. They're a good team — obviously the team we beat in the final and they'll want to stick it to us for sure ... I think that Philly are playing extremely well. You got [New York City FC] who have games in hand, and in a sense, we have to think there's possibly a road game in the playoffs. We went on the road in 2018 expecting to win and we have to do that again.”
To win the games, as Larentowicz demands, Frank de Boer will continue to rely on players throughout the squad, as he’s done most of the season while Atlanta has dealt with a range of injuries and absences of key players. Wednesday night, Franco Escobar left the game with a hamstring injury in the first half while Eric Remedi reportedly missed out due to a quadriceps issue. Tito Villalba and Ezequiel Barco are still finding their fitness following recoveries from knee ailments.
“I think it's about coming together as a group, believing in what we're doing, and knowing [to] be a professional when your number is called,” said Larentowicz. “You step up and you perform. It's not easy, especially when you're a guy that expects to play every week, but we support each other, and to have an opportunity in a game like this is a big thing.
“I want to play every week. Flo [Pogba] wants to play every week. Dion [Pereira] wants to play every week. Emerson [Hyndman] wants to play every week. But at the same time, we support each other and we want to win.”
Manager Frank De Boer said the options he has available to him are a credit to Carlos Bocanegra and Darren Eales, who helped build a squad of talented players that the manager trusts. And he pointed to his ability to rotate his squad without losing much in terms of quality is a testament to how far the league has come in closing the gap with Liga MX.
“Maybe it was not the ideal formation [for a final], but still, we do it with the whole roster,” De Boer said after the game. “I have the confidence in those players. If not, I wouldn't play them.
“I made five changes today compared to the last game. And that was because I have to think also about Portland. If you see how we did today, then you can say we made major steps forward, not only 'we' as Atlanta, but also as a club from the United States.”