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Atlanta United ready for ‘second season,’ hopeful for Almiron’s return

Oct 28, 2018; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Atlanta United midfielder Darlington Nagbe (6) controls the ball away from Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley (left) at BMO Field. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

MARIETTA, Ga. — Atlanta United FC looked sloppy and outmatched in a 4-1 loss to Toronto FC Sunday. The jaws of defeat ripped the Supporters’ Shield and the No. 1 overall seed in the MLS Playoffs away from the Five Stripes.

But for Atlanta United’s players, the loss that occurred just days ago seems like it happened a year ago. The players said they are beginning a second season this Sunday, and it lasts just five games. Wins in each contest will mean the Five Stripes take home their first trophy.

“I think guys have already let (losing the Supporters Shield) go,” Darlington Nagbe said Wednesday at the club’s training grounds. “I think that’s the good thing about this team. When we have a result that doesn’t go our way, I think we let it go. We come out and always respond pretty well.”

Added Greg Garza: “Anything can happen. It has nothing to do with the regular season. That’s completely over with. The page has been turned. It’s a completely new season for these next five games.”

Nagbe is right about how the Five Stripes respond to defeats. Atlanta hasn’t fallen in back-to-back games this season. In games following their six previous defeats, they drew twice and won four times.

While the club is only two years old, Atlanta United is armed with playoff experience.

Nagbe won an MLS Cup with the Portland Timbers, Jeff Larentowicz won an MLS Cup and a U.S. Open Cup, Garza has been through playoffs in Liga MX, Michael Parkhurst won a Danish Cup with F.C. Nordsjælland, Brad Guzan played in tournaments in England, Ezequiel Barco won the Copa Sudamericana and Hector “Tito” Villalba was on a squad that won the Copa Libertadores.

And everyone on this year’s squad that was also on last year’s team has at least one MLS playoff game under their belts, but Atlanta is hoping that its playoff run doesn’t end as abruptly. The Five Stripes fell at home in the knockout round last season, losing in penalty kicks to the Columbus Crew.

“That was a game where anything could happen,” Garza said. “It was just a smell as to what playoffs really are.”

Atlanta performed well enough in the regular season to avoid the knockout round in 2018. They’ll face NYCFC in a two-leg Eastern Conference semifinal, which begins Sunday at Yankee Stadium.

Nagbe said the players held a meeting on Monday. The loss to Toronto wasn’t discussed much. What was talked about, with experienced players leading the conversation, was how the Five Stripes should approach home and away legs.

“You have to manage it a little differently,” Nagbe said. “Normally, if you’re losing a game, you have to try to push and try to win, but at the same time you have to be careful and not push too much and not give up goals, because you get to come back home and still try to get the win.”

Scoring goals and stopping the other team from scoring are two things that Atlanta has somewhat struggled with recently. Over the Five Stripes’ last four contests, two wins and two losses, they’ve been cumulatively outscored 8-5.

Count Nagbe as someone who isn’t worried about the Five Stripes’ production.

“I’m not trying to sound like I’m boosting my team up, but I just trust my guys,” Nagbe said. “We have a talented team. We’ve created chances, we just haven’t put them away. If we weren’t creating chances, I think that would be a problem, but we are creating chances.”

Garza isn’t concerned either.

“As long as you’re strong mentally, and I think we have a really strong mental group, we should be fine,” he said.

Garza’s return from a five-month recovery after he underwent surgery on his right shoulder should give Atlanta a boost on offense, defense and mentality. And so should the return of two-time MLS All-Star Miguel Almiron.

The Paraguayan playmaker missed Atlanta’s past two games because of an injury to his left hamstring, but the wiry midfielder returned to training this week, working out with the first team fully on Tuesday and Thursday.

“Obviously he is a threat on any team he’s on,” Nagbe said of Almiron. “Having Miguel back and him carrying the ball and creating chances is huge.”

A finalist for MLS MVP, Almiron has 12 goals and 14 assists this season. While his contributions to Atlanta’s offense are well documented, Almiron also does a solid job of tracking back on defense and winning balls in the midfield.

Teenage homegrown George Bello, who missed Atlanta’s 18-man roster in Toronto, also returned to training this week, practicing with the first team Wednesday.

As the Five Stripes near full fitness, they’re ready to turn the page and begin their second season.

“We had a wonderful season,” Garza said. “You kind of look at Sunday as one of the very few losses we had during the season, and you try to use this week to try and find that perfect form that we were in much before that. It’s a new week, a new month and we have five finals in front of us.”

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