Toronto will battle for a place in history as the highest point-winners in MLS history. Atlanta’s incentives, on the other hand, are a little more tangible, as their training schedule next week is still to be determined. By 6 p.m. Sunday, the Five Stripes could find themselves as high as second in the confrerence or as low as fith. The former would grant them a full week to recover and train before preparing for a home-and-away second-round tie, while the latter would see them hopping on a plane within a day or two to play in what Tata Martino has called “a cup final” with the season on the line.
Atlanta United players said after training Thursday that they are focused on finishing the season as strongly as possible to give the team momentum heading into the playoffs.
“They’re the Supporters Shield winners. They’ve been killing it all year and have the most points in the league and are the favorites to win MLS Cup, so they’re definitely the team to beat,” said Julian Gressel, who will look to make his final push for the Rookie of the Year award Sunday. “If we get the win and get a good performance at home, then I think that’ll give us a little push come playoff time.”
Gressel noted that Toronto is a difficult opponent not only because of the top end talent, highlighted by Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, but also the coninuity the team has with the system they’ve been playing in for the past few seasons.
“They have good players and they all play within the system they’ve played all year. They’re good individual, but they’re even better as a team,” said Gressel. “They play together and they’re accustomed to their system. They have the right pieces for the kind of style they play. Obviously they have Michael Bradley in there who’s dictating play, they have three very good defenders in the back and two wingbacks that get up and down, and two great forwards. So it’s all fits very nicely.”
Anton Walkes was a little more fiery in his words with the media, saying that Atlanta has to approach the game with the right attitude to help the team gain a result and momentum heading into the playoffs.
“I think they’ve got very good players, and we’ve got very good players, and whoever turns up the most on the day is gonna be the team that wins, so if our players handle their business, no doubt we’ll win,” said the youngster on loan from Tottenham.
Walkes said he expects nothing but Toronto’s best, no matter who Toronto manager Greg Vanney fields in his starting XI Sunday. “I think any team going into the last few games should not be taking their foot off the gas because the season isn’t done yet. I think you want to make sure you’re in the best rhythm going into the playoffs because anything could happen regardless of where you finish in the top 6. So I don’t see them easing off. Every game is competitive and we’re focused on being as competitive as we always are.”
But while proper motivation might be a question mark for the visitors, Gressel said Atlanta will be determined to get the win Sunday.
“I think it’s more about us winning the game and just getting the three points and not dropping to fifth, because we want to have that home game if it has to be a play in game,” said the German midfielder. “It’s the last regular season home game, so the fans deserve a win, and for us we at least want to be third or fourth.”