MARIETTA, Ga. — Atlanta United travels north to meet the Montreal Impact Sunday at 5 p.m. ET. This is one last opportunity for the Five Stripes to find their mental edge away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium before the MLS Cup playoffs begin.
“Away games, the opponent is a little bit more positive in their playing style,” manager Frank de Boer said after training Friday. “They are more aggressive. We have to compete with that.”
Atlanta did not compete with that Wednesday at New York City FC. The Five Stripes did not look to be in the game until after halftime. By that time, they were down 3-1. The Pigeons steamrolled to a 4-1 win and eliminated Atlanta from contention for the top seed in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference.
The blowout in the Bronx was not Atlanta’s first nightmarish road result this season. The Five Stripes have picked up six away wins, tied for second most in MLS, but they have zero draws and 10 losses. Once things begin to go bad away from the Benz, Atlanta seems to have little chance of a recovery.
“Ten losses, six wins. That’s not, I think, what Atlanta United wants to be remembered,” de Boer said. “Atlanta, 80 percent of the games we have to win or draw.
“It has to stop. We have to understand that.”
All year, de Boer has preached the importance of winning individual duels. There is statistical evidence behind his argument. Atlanta is 14-6-1 when winning at least 50 percent of the duels this season and 8-2-0 when winning at least 54 percent. The Five Stripes are 3-6-2 when failing to reach the 50 percent threshold.
For a team as talented as Atlanta, consistently winning duels comes down to mentality. Lack of mental sharpness means players are unlikely to best their opponents. Atlanta has struggled to show that sharpness from the opening whistle away this season. New York City won 53 percent of the duels Wednesday.
“We can’t accept that,” de Boer said. “We need a guarantee that if you are going to play away again we will be there in that moment. It’s the playoffs now. You have to show it every time. That’s why this Montreal game is important.”
Ezequiel Barco, missing due to injury since the U.S. Open Cup final Aug. 27, is expected to return against the Impact, though he is not ready to start. Julian Gressel missed the NYCFC loss with a calf injury and also should play versus Montreal. However, Atlanta’s biggest attacking thread remains unavailable. Josef Martínez still is recovering from knee and ankle injuries sustained last Saturday against the San Jose Earthquakes, and there is no timetable for his return.
“In Josef’s case, he’s our goal scorer, and he’s the only player who’s really scored a ton of goals,” Barco told reporters Friday. “You saw last year he broke the goal-scoring record. So it’s a big loss for us, but we just try to get him back as quickly as we can so he’s there and able to score for us.”
Barco admitted that without Martínez on the field, Atlanta must overcome the psychological challenge of playing without its vocal leader and goleador.
“It changes because he’s a big reference for us both on and off the field,” the young Argentine said. “But all we can do is try to not feel his absence on the field. Guys have to make up for it. We don’t know how long he’s going to be out, so guys have to step up and hopefully he’s back soon.”
The Impact defeated Toronto FC Wednesday to win the Canadian Championship. They are holding out hope for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot. Atlanta is likely to face an intense game against a desperate team, but the Five Stripes have more talent and should be able to claim all three points — if they raise their level to 100 percent. If not, serious questions will hang over this team as it goes into the postseason with at least one away knockout game likely.
Atlanta has played a lot of games this season. De Boer’s team reached the quarterfinals of the Concacaf Champions League, won the U.S. Open Cup and defeated Club América in the Campeones Cup. That amounts to nine competitive games outside league play. If the Five Stripes are worn out, mentally and physically, it is understandable. But it is something they must overcome in the weeks ahead.
“Maybe we’ve played eight or nine games more than the rest,” de Boer said. That’s something that has influence.
“We had also time to cool off a little bit. Before we play the first playoff game we have two weeks of resting time to prepare and to charge the battery again. I think [fatigue is] a weak excuse for us to use.”