Coming out of a four month layoff directly into a competitive match will be difficult for most MLS teams that weren't able to squeeze in a friendly before the MLS is Back Tournament. It may be even tougher for Frank de Boer's Atlanta United side, given their start against the high-pressing New York Red Bulls.
The teams, who have six regular season games and both legs of the 2018 Eastern Conference Championship in their rivalry history will meet again in one of the tastier opening group games Saturday night in Group E (8 pm ET | FOX, TUDN, TSN). And while de Boer admits his side may be gutting it out to get through the 90 minutes, at least they'll be doing so against a familiar foe.
"We have analyzed Red Bull a lot already, of course it is quite a familiar opponent that we’ve played over the last couple of years," de Boer said. "Until now, we didn’t play 90 minutes, we are physically not 100 percent, but what I see from training the last couple of days, also the last couple of weeks, players are excited to start and the quality is there. Hopefully we can deliver a good game against Red Bull."
A veteran of competitions with a similar format from his days playing with the Netherlands at two FIFA World Cups and three UEFA European Championships, de Boer knows well the demand tournament football can take on even the fittest of squads. He plans to rotate players accordingly.
"I’ve already in my mind for Game 1 and 2, and then normally Game 3 you can start the guys from Game 1," de Boer said. "Especially in the positions where you cover a lot of ground with a lot of intensity, you really have to take care of players. Of course sometimes a center back doesn’t cover that much ground compared to a wing back so you really have to take care of those players and don’t overload them. We need everybody who’s here and we’re going to use them that’s for sure."
While his familiarity with the format might help him from a load management perspective, he admitted the mental challenges of this particular tournament, played entirely at ESPN's Wide World of Sports, are unique from those of USA '94 or France '98.
"Normally in a World Cup you can still leave your hotel and other environment," he said. "I think MLS in the hotel we’re staying in they provided a lot of things to enjoy ourselves. We have all kinds of things….they can enjoy themselves when they don’t have a training session or something like that. But it’s still in the bubble.
"I don’t know how mentally it’s going to be for our players. We had just three days so far. Hopefully it’s going to be ok, I think of course good results always helps."
Because of the modified transfer rules, de Boer won't be able to utilize free transfer signing Jurgen Damm from UANL Tigres.. When Damm can play later this season, de Boer hopes he provides a similar skillset to former Atlanta winger Julian Gressel, who forged a devastating partnership with currently injured striker Josef Martinez before moving on to D.C.
"Jurgen can hopefully provide the same for Josef," de Boer said. "He is an experienced player, he has played on the highest level, and of course he’s a quality player. I think he can strengthen our squad because it’s a very long season. I think he can support our strikers really well with his individual actions and good crosses."