ATLANTA — Heading into Atlanta United’s Conference Semifinal match against the Philadelphia Union in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs Thursday (8 pm ET | ESPN2 in US; TVAS, TSN in Canada), Frank de Boer will continue to have big decisions to make when choosing his starting XI.
The Five Stripes are suffering an injury crisis at center back — cruel timing, especially considering how steady the position has been this season. Breakout defender Miles Robinson and his 33 league starts will be missed again for the second straight playoff game, and De Boer ruled out Robinson’s replacement, Michael Parkhurst, after he suffered a dislocated shoulder in stoppage time of Atlanta’s 1-0 win over the New England Revolution on Saturday.
While dropping Jeff Larentowicz back from midfield and into defense is possible, it’s much more likely that De Boer will introduce Florentin Pogba to his three-man defense. After all, this is exactly why Pogba said De Boer wanted to bring him to Atlanta when he signed this offseason: to have a left-footed defender that can play either as a left center back or left back.
“The confidence level was the same as it was before the last game,” said Pogba on Monday through a translator. “Nothing changes for us. We have to go in with a cool mind and not put too much pressure on ourselves.
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“Now,” added Pogba, “we just have to defend like ‘cabrones’ in these games. We can’t make mistakes.”
De Boer made it clear after his team’s win on Saturday that he greatly values midseason addition Emerson Hyndman and the balance he gives the team with his box-to-box ability. Hyndman told media this week that as a youngster he was a pure attacker, but his time playing in the Premier League taught him how to do the dirty work required of a central midfielder.
“I feel like I’m getting better. I had a long spell at Bournemouth where that was the key, to learn the defensive side,” said Hyndman. “I focused on it every day really hard. I think it’s just putting my mind onto it every day before the game, making sure I do the right things, track my man, put in tackles. That’s stuff the team needs, so I’m willing to do that now.”
The only determination to be made here is who starts alongside Josef Martinez: Ezequiel Barco or Pity Martinez? After missing out in each of the last two games, it seems increasingly likely that de Boer will once again opt for Barco, who came off the bench for Atlanta in last year’s playoffs.
“You know what I always say. I'm looking toward this game with the team that, for me, has the most chance to win,” said De Boer Tuesday. “That can be without Barco, or that can be without Pity or both together, but we have to wait for Thursday.”