MARIETTA, Ga. — Prior to Atlanta United’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal win at Orlando City, star forward Josef Martínez said it would be a game in which Atlanta had to play “with a knife between your teeth.” He expects the same mental edge from his teammates Saturday with the Five Stripes meet the New England Revolution in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs.
“Whoever doesn’t have that mentality in these games, where you either move on or go home, should choose a different profession,” Martínez said through an interpreter Tuesday at the Children’s Healthcare Training Ground. “You have to have a winning mentality. I don’t care if it’s against Real Madrid, Liverpool, you have to win anyway. We’re at home, with our fans, and whoever doesn’t have that mentality can go home and start their vacation already. There is no other mentality.”
Atlanta and New England are coming off a two-week break since they played on the final day of MLS’ regular season. The Five Stripes won that one 3-1, but they have a recent history of failing to shake off the cobwebs following time off. Coming out of the September international break, Atlanta lost 3-1 at home to the Columbus Crew, who finished 10th in the Eastern Conference. Manager Frank de Boer and his players admitted training sessions in the week before that loss were poor, and the performances carried over to game day.
Everyone who spoke with media this week agreed the preparation for Saturday’s game has been top quality.
“They look really good, I have to admit,” de Boer said Thursday. “Everybody is really focused, and they know it can be over in one game. You fought so hard to come to the playoffs, you want to continue for as long as possible. You can’t relax right now.”
Jeff Larentowicz likened the team to a can of soda that has been shaken up and is ready to explode. Julian Gressel said, “We are ready to start rolling.” Darlington Nagbe told reporters that, knowing it was likely to play New England again in the postseason, Atlanta approached the teams’ previous matchup as a playoff game.
“I think the feeling in the group has been good,” Nagbe said Wednesday. “Just because of last game, we kind of approached that as a playoff game, with the chance of us playing them again so we wanted to set the tone. I think the vibe has been good. We focused on some things that we saw last game from them. They had a couple chances on the break, so trying to limit those chances and trying to be sharper in possession.”
Atlanta’s mentality rarely has come into question in games with something on the line. The Five Stripes cruised through last season’s playoffs en route to a league championship. They won this season’s U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup.
“We were always there and at our best in those games,” Gressel said Wednesday. “I’m pretty confident that we will be at our best when it really matters, and the time is now.”
Still, the team has faltered in regular-season play this year. Atlanta never won a game after conceding first, exhibiting an alarming habit of falling to pieces when things did not go according to plan. In big games away from home, the Five Stripes crumbled. They lost 4-3 at Los Angeles Football Club after falling behind 4-1 in the first half, and a 3-0 halftime deficit at New York City FC resulted in a 4-1 loss. In both games, as has been the case at times throughout 2019, individual errors plagued Atlanta.
Tactics will come under a microscope after the final whistle Saturday. Will Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez start? Will Atlanta play more pragmatic without standout center back Miles Robinson? De Boer’s answers to these questions will draw either praise or scorn, depending on the result. But, the attitude of his players will play a significant role in determining the outcome, too.
“I think it’s more than anything a mentality,” Larentowicz said Tuesday. “You look at 10 one-v-one battles all over the field and you have to win seven or eight of those to win the game. It’s not necessarily tactics, but it’s going into the game and beating the guy in front of you.
“Last year, from [the first game of the playoffs versus NYCFC at] Yankee Stadium on, we really focused on that and defended as a team. We won those battles and it carried us through. Our talent in the attack were able to do what they always did. Mainly because behind them, we had the foundation of the guys winning those battles and creating those opportunities going forward. We have to do that again this year.”
If Atlanta does not have the right mentality Saturday, the Five Stripes almost certainly will suffer an early exit in their MLS Cup defense. After poor results this season, players have talked about taking “a long look in the mirror.” The 2020 MLS regular season and Concacaf Champions League begin in February, four months from now. That look in the mirror will be excruciatingly long if Atlanta fails to advance past the Revs.
“If somebody comes out with [a poor] mentality and they’re not ready to go, then you’ve got to give them a kick in the [butt],” Josef Martínez said Tuesday. “In games like this, that’s not an option. You’ve got to be ready to go from the beginning with that mentality. If not, then I’m going to let you know, because nobody messes with that, with my family, with my money, with my job. So I’ll let you know.”