MARIETTA, GA. — When Atlanta United fans sing out “we ready” in the moments prior to kickoff of their second-leg Eastern Conference Semifinals series against NYCFC on Sunday (5:30 pm ET | ESPN, TSN2, TVAS2), manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino will probably be thinking something similar.
Ahead of Atlanta United’s Decision Day contest against Toronto FC, a match where a win for his side would have seen them lift the Supporters’ Shield, Martino talked to media about his team “learning how to win in this league.”
Atlanta proceeded to lay an egg.
Fast forward a week, and that same Atlanta United side—with the exception of 45 minutes of Miguel Almiron—handed NYCFC only their second loss at Yankee Stadium all year. It was as aggressive and tenacious of a performance that Atlanta has shown in Martino’s tenure in charge of the team. While the Argentine manager says the team “left the Toronto game in Toronto,” his side appears to have carried lessons out of it that will help them on a run in the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs.
“The loss to Toronto was a blow, but the important thing is how the team has responded to it,” Martino told media Friday through a translator. “I think we've responded well, and we have to maintain that going into this weekend.”
Atlanta will be happy to play at home for the first time in three weeks. More than 70,000 hopeful Atlanta United fans are expected to pack Mercedes-Benz Stadium for Sunday’s clash. Despite the enthusiasm, Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst warned that his team must be up for the fight that NYCFC is sure to present.
“Being a home playoff game doesn't mean that you're going to win,” Parkhurst told media Friday. “For us last year, it was the same thing. It was a one-and-done and you think you've got a big advantage playing at home, especially with our crowd, but there's no guarantees on any given night that you're going to be able to score or that things are going to go your way. We have to understand that.”
Playing in Atlanta, there’s an added burden lingering in the air: 28-3. Atlanta, as a sports town, is one that’s been starved of success across the sporting spectrum. With hopes as optimistic in Atlanta now as they’ve been since February 5, 2017 — the date of the fateful Super Bowl where they let that 28-3 lead slip away in that infamous defeat — there’s even more weight on the shoulders of the Five Stripes.
“The benefit is that most of us aren't from Atlanta, so we haven't been accustomed to what's gone on here in professional sports in a while,” said Parkhurst. “I think any time you're playing in a game the way we do playing back to Brad [Guzan], the crowd gets a little nervous just because of what's at stake. It's more nerve racking to watch.... Hopefully we can ease their nerves early on.”