MARIETTA, Ga. — “When you play a semifinal,” Josef Martínez said, “one has to play with a knife between your teeth.”
That is how Martínez, the face of Atlanta United, spoke about the mentality needed for his team’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal at Orlando City. Atlanta and Orlando meet Tuesday night in a clash of geographic rivals that will leave one side 90 minutes from potentially hoisting a trophy. Even for an objective reporter, it was difficult to fend off the goosebumps hearing those words from Martínez in the locker room after Atlanta’s 3-0 win over the LA Galaxy. This is a game that means something.
While the U.S. Soccer officials in charge of the Open Cup will be thrilled that Martínez is hyping up Atlanta-Orlando in such fashion, from the Venezuela international’s perspective, he is trying to hype up his team. The Five Stripes have lost their past six Major League Soccer games away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Adding to the challenge Tuesday, Atlanta will be without its goleador and vocal leader. Martínez sustained an adductor injury during training Monday and did not make the trip to Orlando. The Five Stripes have to do the job without him.
Throughout this stretch of poor away from, manager Frank de Boer and his players have consistently pointed to the team’s lack of concentration and focus on the road as culprit. Everyone has acknowledged the problem, but nothing has changed. Atlanta’s last away win came in this tournament, a 3-2 round-of-16 victory at the Columbus Crew on June 18. In MLS play, Atlanta last won away May 15 at Vancouver. The Five Stripes have not played with a knife between their teeth on the road.
“At home, we always play offensive,” Martínez said through an interpreter after the Galaxy game. “The problem is that we need to improve how we play on the road. We can’t have a team that plays this way at home, like we have the last two or three games at home. We have to have the mentality to also do it away.”
After Monday’s training session, de Boer explained Atlanta’s mentality problem. The team has failed to understand that when it is the visitor, it must fully switch on from the opening whistle to the last.
“I think especially thinking, ‘OK, we can do it a little bit like 95% [effort] or something like that,” the manager said. “[The home teams] have more guts to play and play more offensive, press forward, and if you’re not that switched on — like the Chicago game — you can be punished in 11 minutes, the same against LAFC. So we have to learn from those mistakes.
“If we want to be a top team, then not only at home you have to play a good performance, but also away.”
De Boer was referencing the July 3 5-1 loss at the Chicago Fire, in which the home side were up three goals and one man in the first 13 minutes, and the July 26 4-3 loss at Los Angeles Football Club. In that game, LAFC scored all of its goals over a 12-minute period late in the first half.
“[Opponents are] sitting back more, normally in our stadium,” de Boer said. “We play with more confidence in our stadium. So we have to make that change in our mindset that we do it also away.”
Winning on the road is difficult in every league, in every sport. But last season, the Five Stripes thrived away from the Benz. Their 10-5-2 mark was the best in league history. This year, that record has dipped to 3-8-0. The team held a meeting “three or four weeks ago, trying to get, hey, why is it different, home and away?” according to de Boer.
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan said coaches and players are in constant conversation about Atlanta’s away form. He does not believe “it’s any one thing” that is affecting the team’s focus on the road. Guzan denied that it is the atmosphere and crowd noise that makes a difference: “It’s not this, ‘oh, we’re going to such-and-such stadium and we’re scared.” Simply playing in an unfamiliar environment against a team that expects to be on the front foot can magnify a visiting team’s small mistakes.
“It’s a matter of being on the field and understanding that for closer to 90 minutes, closer to the entire game, you’re going to be, to a certain extent, under some type of pressure. It’s being able to deal with that pressure, be it in your defensive third, be it in their defensive third where they just have the ball and we’re not high pressing and getting after guys, and they’re getting a rhythm and a confidence that allows them to then feel as if they’ve got some momentum going in their favor.
“Those moments — be it set pieces, be it lack of concentration — little moments define big games. So in those situations, we’ve got to try and find a way to be better for longer periods of time.”
Clearly, correcting the lack of focus and concentration is no easy task. This issue has been discussed during numerous media sessions in recent months, as it has been behind closed doors. Combating the problem “is down to constant conversation,” according to Guzan.
“It’s down to try to understand and get 11 guys who are on the field, get those 11 guys that understand what’s happening and what the game is going to entail in terms of how we’re going to win and how we’re going to get a result,” the goalkeeper said. “It’s not just about running around like a crazy person. It’s not about, ‘oh, we’re going to play this system or that system.’ It comes down to being focused and ultimately then carrying out the preparation that you’ve had leading up to the game.”
Taking the game to the opposition from the start is vital. Atlanta took an early 1-0 lead against LAFC, but it did not build upon that momentum, and the Supporters’ Shield leaders quickly gained control of the game. Four goals in 12 minutes was not to be expected, but as the first half wore on, it felt as if an LAFC goal was not a matter of “if” but “when.”
The result at Chicago was determined before all of the fans in attendance had reached their seats. In a 3-2 loss at Toronto FC on June 26, the Reds led inside one minute.
“More than anything, it’s about how you compete in the first 20, 25, 30 minutes of a game,” midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said Monday. “And that’s kind of an old adage of soccer: win the first tackle, first pass, first corner, all those things, first 50-50. Starting the game is important.
“Tomorrow night, it’s very clear. You don’t win, you’re done. There’s no margin. Possibly in a regular-season game, you feel the leash is a lot longer. That’s the wrong mentality, maybe that’s it. I don’t know. We don’t have that leash tomorrow.”
If playing in an unfamiliar environment against a team that is amped up makes life difficult, Tuesday night will be difficult. Orlando has never beaten the Five Stripes, has never reached the MLS Cup playoffs, has never won a trophy since joining the league in 2015. The purple partisans are billing this game as the biggest in club history.
“We’re ready,” Orlando City forward Chris Mueller told Pro Soccer USA’s Julia Poe. “We know all of the hype that’s coming in around it. It brings a little bit of extra flair, a little bit of a vibe, a little bit more of a bite to the game. I think going against Atlanta in such a big game like this, I think it’s gonna be a special night.”
De Boer hopes his starting XI will channel his enthusiasm for big games in hostile environments. The manager relished these moments during his playing career.
“I think it shows the quality of the player who can deal with it,” he said. “I thought it was always fantastic when I played a derby [with Ajax] against Feynoord, a clásico in Holland then. When you see the anger in those eyes from the fans, it gave me only more energy to show them, hey, this is what I’m going to treat you to today.
“That’s how you have to deal with it. Some will feel threatened, probably, because not everyone plays the same away or at home. So we have to try to get every player in the right momentum and to get more energy out of it than to be afraid.”
De Boer was hoping to count on Martínez as a player who would get energy out of the situation. Talking about the boos he received during the All-Star Game in Orlando, Martínez twisted the knife in a team he has dominated: “When you go home, you always get a reception like that. That’s why the love me so much.” Now, it is up to others to inspire confidence in the team.
Guzan sounds game for the challenge. Larentowicz, a 14-year MLS veteran and consummate professional, should be ready if he is asked to play Tuesday. He carries a de Boer-ian mentality into the game.
“Going to Orlando, and to see them booing our guys in the All-Star game, athletes enjoy shutting people up,” the midfielder said. “For me, it’s a motivation. I think about playing there last year and getting beers thrown on us. There’s a bit of sort of enjoyment in seeing all the people who have come to root against you deal with that. So that’s an incentive for us.
“You can allow the crowd to affect you as the opposing team, or you can use it as fuel.”
Atlanta is well aware of its mental block on the road and is working to change the chip. The team seemingly has the right attitude going into a semifinal that will be played in a hostile environment. A trophy is on the line. The Five Stripes are the reigning league champions, and they should be up to the task of raising their level for this game.
Whether they are remains to be seen.