What’s different about Atlanta United in 2019? Lessons from MLS Cup run provide clues

MARIETTA, Ga. – Ask any Atlanta United fan what they remember about the team’s 2018 season, and they’re bound to rattle off a list of memories: winning MLS Cup, Josef Martinez winning the Golden Boot and 2018 Landon Donovan MLS MVP awards, Miguel Almiron’s leading role – all of it.

What you’re unlikely to hear is just how defeated the team was after letting the Supporters’ Shield slip through their fingers in a 4-1 loss at Toronto FC to end the regular season. That was only after the manager, Tata Martino, announced that he was leaving at the end of the season. 

Talk about a bad week.

“We have to be much, much better in big games,” said Michael Parkhurst at the team’s training facility almost exactly a year ago. “We know that it doesn’t have to be pretty, maybe take a few less risks and lock up defensively. We need to do that, and we haven’t done it in big games.”

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What a difference a year makes.

Atlanta, just in its third year as a club, has won MLS Cup, U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup titles since that fateful day in Toronto. The experience of righting the ship before last year’s playoff run may prove most valuable as the Five Stripes look to repeat as champions, starting with Saturday’s matchup (1 pm ET | Univision, TUDN, TVAS, TSN4) against the New England Revolution in Round One of the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs

“It was an identity check last year, I think,” Julian Gressel said. “We got beat down and [had to] regroup and try to come together and not go at each other, but pull on the same strings and go in the same direction.”

A year later, Atlanta arrive at the playoffs with core differences. There’s a new manager in Frank de Boer. There are different players through the likes of Pity Martinez, Emerson Hyndman, Justin Meram and Florentin Pogba – all of whom are likely to feature in some capacity on Saturday. There’s even the new single-elimination playoff format that Atlanta will have to contend with. 

But no difference between the two sides is bigger than an intangible quality: experience.

“Ultimately, what it comes back to is we've been in this situation and we've played important games at home,” Gressel said. “We've made the run before as where other teams have not. I hope that experience will pay off a little bit and we have that edge going into this.”

There are lessons from last year’s playoff run that could apply when the East’s No. 2 seed takes to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, according to midfielder Darlington Nagbe. They’ve learned and recalibrated, even as some of the XI has changed.

“Last year the way we did it, being able to make a run through the playoffs, switching up our style of play a little bit in the playoffs, I think lets us know that playoffs are different,” Nagbe said. “You can play well in the regular season and get by, but I think you need to turn it up a little bit in the playoffs in terms of energy. The opponent is trying a lot harder, as well. It's different when you know if you lose you're going home.”

While Gressel and Nagbe made references to Atlanta’s pragmatic approach in the 2018 playoffs, it’s not entirely clear what a more-pragmatic version of De Boer’s team looks like. 

Since mid-summer, the Dutch manager has deployed an aggressive 3-4-3 shape after the team struggled for goals in the first half of the season. De Boer then shifted his team to a back four in the second half of his team’s 3-1 win over the Revolution last weekend, leaving open the possibility of a new team shape. That’s particularly true after MLS Defender of the Year candidate Miles Robinson suffered a hamstring injury while with the US men’s national team. The center back is currently out week-to-week.

However Atlanta takes to the field, expect a certain wisdom that only comes from being here before.

“The biggest thing is we recognize moments to [go forward] and moments to not do it,” Nagbe said. “That's the biggest thing, and I don't know if it's Frank [de Boer] as much as it is guys on the field. If you feel it, then go, but if you don't feel like it's a time to go, then wait a little bit."

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