De Boer explains decision to keep Pity Martinez on bench for playoff opener

ATLANTA — Last season, Atlanta United’s then-manager Tata Martino left Designated Player signing Ezequiel Barco on the bench throughout his team’s championship run.

A year later, it was Barco getting the nod from manager Frank de Boer in front of another DP signing, with Pity Martinez left out of the XI for Atlanta’s Round One win against the New England Revolution Saturday in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.

“I have to make decisions,” De Boer said after his team's 1-0 triumph, “Right now, I think, with the three in midfield of Emerson Hyndman, Jeff (Larentowicz) and Darlington (Nagbe) is a good balance. Then, I have one spare spot left in that position and that’s either Barco or Pity (Martinez). Now I’m choosing for Barco, and he is doing well. I have choices always, but for me, I didn’t have any reasons to change him for Pity.”

Wing back Julian Gressel said the absence of Pity from the starting XI didn’t change anything for the team tactically, considering the attacking midfielder was also dropped on Decision Day presented by AT&T when the same two teams faced off two weeks ago.

“It was just a decision that Frank made to put a more defensive-minded guy with Emerson in there and maybe not go all-out from the start,” Gressel said in the locker room after the game. “We've trained like this all week. Pity obviously was upset at first, but today he did a good job kind of being up for it and being a good teammate and supporting us. I'm sure we're going to need him down the stretch.”

Although De Boer has shown willingness to drop Pity from the lineup, his absence in a win-or-go-home playoff game sticks out given the reported record transfer fee Atlanta laid out to sign the reigning South American player of the year — not to mention his history for scoring big goals in big games for both River Plate and Atlanta. He scored the final goal in the 2018 Copa Libertadores Final against Boca Juniors in his last appearance for River, and he also helped Atlanta United in the U.S. Open Cup final with a goal that proved decisive.

But De Boer expressed earlier this week that such factors wouldn't influence his decision over the desire to put the strongest collective unit on the field together.

“I think Pity is always a player for the No. 10 position, and Hyndman is one of the three midfielders,” De Boer said after Saturday’s win. “I think you can play with Barco and Pity like we did versus Minnesota, but the discipline that Emerson does and what he brings defensively in our box, that’s the balance that I’m searching for. Of course, you can play with players like that, but it’s a big risk.”