ATLANTA — Is Atlanta United back? They’re getting there.
Less than a month ago, the Five Stripes languished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings and fans questioned whether the team's new manager, Frank de Boer, was the right man for the job.
Three games — and three clean sheets — after a disappointing home loss to FC Dallas, Atlanta is looking more like the team that lifted the 2018 MLS Cup than one propping up the Eastern Conference standings. They've won four of five and are above the playoff line for the first time this season.
“It starts with team spirit and belief,” De Boer said after Wednesday's 2-0 victory over Toronto FC. “Five or six weeks ago we had a meeting to really get together and understand each other on both sides. From there on, we made very good progress. It was already what I saw those two weeks on the training ground ... the respect to each other, the work rate, everything. You saw the confidence growing.
“Of course, we still expect that we can improve and we will improve. But it’s a big step forward again against a very good team and good opponent today.”
Julian Gressel, one of Wednesday's goalscorers, said he always felt the team would round into the kind of form it’s shown over the last month.
“The feeling here in the locker room has changed quite a bit in the last three games,” he said. “It’s just time. We’ve said it before. Once you’re together a little bit longer… you start clicking and you get on the same page.”
Part of the adjustment was to De Boer’s Dutch-inspired system, and central to that change is striker Josef Martinez. While the Venezuelan had a record-setting season as a goal scorer under previous manager Tata Martino last year, De Boer has Martinez playing a more well-rounded game — one that has him with his back to goal and linking with his attacking teammates more often.
It paid off repeatedly Wednesday, with Martinez assisting both of Atlanta’s goal scorers, Gressel and Tito Villalba.
“I know he’s eager to always be involved in goals and especially score goals, but I’m very pleased with his performance,” De Boer said. “The other teams also have to look to other players and Josef can also give assists.”
Perhaps most importantly, the positive vibe in Mercedes-Benz Stadium appears to be back.
“There’s no question about it. You can see it in the crowd, you can see it some of the performances of the players,” said midfielder Jeff Larentowicz. “I think the game in Kansas City was exactly what we needed. Tonight was a good game against a team we hadn’t beaten and we played well.”