ATLANTA -- The Supporters' Shield is all but out of reach, but a first-round bye in the Eastern Conference playoffs is still on Atlanta United's wish list for their expansion season.
During the last international break, when the Five Stripes had yet to begin their current six-game homestand at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they were sitting in sixth place just above the playoff line. Five home matches and four victories later, a second-place finish looks a distinct possibility.
With several teams below them in the table dropping points over the weekend, Atlanta now sit third, just three points below New York City FC with a game in hand. Toronto FC and NYCFC have both officially clinched playoff spots, and barring an unforeseen disaster, Toronto will finish with the Supporters' Shield.
“We knew that based on the results [on Saturday] that this was a really important game for us,” defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez said through a translator, following his team’s 2-0 victory on Sunday against the Montreal Impact. “We’re trying to climb the table, and I think that there’s a good chance that we could reach as high as the second spot if we don’t have any slip-ups. We’re just trying to keep moving up and get as high as we can in the table.”
Avoiding the knockout round of the MLS Cup Playoffs is beneficial for any team, but it would be especially so for to Atlanta, who will relish any opportunity to rest players after a jam-packed September and early October schedule.
However, when asked about the importance of punching their ticket directly to the East semis, midfielder Julian Gressel said manager Tata Martino and the team haven't discussed the issue.
“First and foremost, we talked about obviously qualifying for the playoffs,” Gressel said. “I think we have made a really, really big step today towards that. Now, I’m sure this week, we will talk about what other goals we have this year and what we can achieve in the regular season and then, once the playoffs [come].”
Atlanta have taken full advantage of their extended run of games at home, winning four and drawing one since Sept. 10. The team have outscored their opponents 19-3, and goalkeeper Brad Guzan has picked up four clean sheets.
While those are more than solid results, Guzan said, the team will still work to improve as the playoffs approach.
Going into the next international break in early October, Atlanta have a good opportunity to pick up additional points against Philadelphia, New England, and Minnesota, all of whom are currently outside the playoff picture.
Atlanta’s final position may come down to their last two matches, both of which will be challenging for the Five Stripes. They face the New York Red Bulls on Oct. 5 and finish the season at home against Toronto FC on Oct. 22.
“We are always trying to get better,” Guzan said. “At the end of the day, everyone is going to look at the score line and say, ‘Atlanta won, great, move on.’ But, we will sit down and dissect this and look at how we can get better in terms of managing the game and making it easier.”