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Atlanta United plays the hunter, not hunted, in final weeks of MLS season

The Five Stripes are trying to chase down New York City FC and the Philadelphia Union for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

Aug 31, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union forward Kacper Przybylko (23) takes a shot as he is pressured by Atlanta United defender Jeff Larentowicz (18) during the first half at Talen Energy Stadium. (Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)
Aug 31, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union forward Kacper Przybylko (23) takes a shot as he is pressured by Atlanta United defender Jeff Larentowicz (18) during the first half at Talen Energy Stadium. (Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

MARIETTA, Ga. — Atlanta United enjoyed a scintillating month of August. The team won seven of eight games across all competitions and claimed two trophies in a Campeones Cup victory over Mexican giant Club América and a U.S. Open Cup final triumph against Minnesota United. Still, the impressive run did end on a sour note.

Atlanta fell 3-1 at the Philadelphia Union on the last day of the month. After holding a narrow lead atop Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference for weeks, the Five Stripes went into the September international break sitting third in the table. Returning to action this weekend versus the Columbus Crew at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta is six points adrift of New York City FC and three points back of Philadelphia with a game in hand on both.

“It was a tough month,” Jeff Larentowicz said after Wednesday’s training session. “It stinks that [the Philadelphia loss is] the last game you go out on for such a good run. However, if a loss like that had happened in the middle of the stretch, you wonder how the stretch might have been altered. Two trophies and a solid place in the standings with plenty to play for, I think we’re in good shape.”

Six games remain in Atlanta’s regular season, and despite trailing New York City and Philadelphia, the Five Stripes are in control of their fate. Should they win out, they would finish first in the East with 66 points. The closing stretch includes a pivotal contest at New York City Sept. 25. NYC travels to Philadelphia on the final day of the regular season.

Frank de Boer’s team does have a history of learning lessons from failure. Under former manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino, it bounced back from a playoff defeat to Columbus in 2017 to have a near-record-setting 2018 season. And after coughing up last year’s Supporters’ Shield on decision day with an abysmal performance at Toronto FC, Atlanta tore through the playoffs en route to winning MLS Cup. Larentowicz pointed to the Union game as another potential springboard.

“You can look at Toronto last year and say that was the moment when we all said, ‘Oh wow, we know how quickly this can slip away,’” the midfielder told reporters. “Columbus was sort of the lesson in year one that took us into 2018. I think Toronto was a lesson taking us into the [2018] playoffs.

“Philadelphia was kind of a loaded game, but it could also be that lesson for us where we look back and say, ‘We went on a nice run at the end of the year and that Philadelphia game taught us that we need to button things up and close games out and be the tough team we were at the end of the year in 2018.'”

The Five Stripes are in a different position than they were in the final weeks of last season. Then, they were trying to hold off the New York Red Bulls for the shield. Now, they need to pass two teams to clinch a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. Atlanta is 10-1-3 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this season and 5-9-0 on the road. A run back to the MLS Cup final is much more feasible if de Boer and his players do not have to leave town.

I always say you have influence on your own game and performance,” the manager said Thursday. “That you have to be focused on, and afterward we can see what the other results are. First we have to get our result done and then look to other teams. We have to make it game by game, and first is the Columbus Crew. Home games we’ve done very well, but we have to fight really hard for it also on Saturday. Columbus Crew want to get back in the form they started [in 2019] and against the champions they want to show something.”

Columbus opened this season with a 4-1-1 mark that included a 2-0 home win over Atlanta. Things went south from there for the Crew. They won one of their next 16 league games, a terrible run of form that included the longest winless streak in MLS history. Columbus is 11th in the East on a meager 31 points, but Caleb Porter has turned his team around in recent weeks. The Crew are 3-1-4 in their past eight matches. Atlanta cannot afford to come out rusty after two weeks off. 

“It’s a really dangerous team because if you see what kind of quality they have on the pitch — [Gyasi] Zardes, Artur, [Wil] Trapp — they all are quality players,” de Boer said. “We have to as a staff be alert and give the attention to the players that it’s not going to be a walk-over. We have to be 100 percent to beat this team because they will give 100 percent.”

This time next month, Atlanta will know exactly where it stands. The regular season will be over, and the playoffs will be days away. FIFA’s September window allowed the Five Stripes to refocus and refresh ahead of a six-games-in-three-weeks sprint to the finish. Now, there is no room for error.

“We’ve got San Jose in two weeks and Columbus this week with a road game [at FC Cincinnati] in the middle, two out of three at home before we play New York [City], which is obviously a massive game,” Larentowicz said. “You want to get as close to max points as you can so that when that New York game comes you can hopefully be playing for a really nice spot there.

“This is a six-game season we have to focus on. We said it before the Philadelphia game: Champions League, Campeones Cup, Open Cup, they’re all done. We’re only looking at one competition now, and the focus has to be on that.”

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