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Five Thoughts: Atlanta United punches its ticket to MLS Cup Eastern Conference Finals

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MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-New York City FC at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United is battle tested

The question mark about Atlanta United’s MLS Cup hopes has never revolved around talent or skill. It’s been about the team’s toughness—its ability to grind out games in tense conditions, to win with spirit and toughness, and to do so against good teams. Over two legs, Atlanta United has answered that criticism. It won a difficult game in Yankee Stadium in which it didn’t allow a shot on target. In the home leg, knowing NYCFC would be attacking with all its might, the Five Stripes stood tall. And Atlanta didn’t necessarily just rely on its stars to do it (though Almiron returning certainly helps). Miles Robinson stepped into the starting lineup for the first time since May, and Martino said he was one of his team’s three best players on the night. Franco Escobar has played two of his best games of the season in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Sunday night’s performance that sealed Atlanta’s path to the conference finals was truly a team effort.

Miguel Almiron changes Atlanta United defensively

Miguel Almiron lit up Mercedes Benz Stadium Sunday night with a fantastic free kick goal and many other highlight moments on the ball that helped see Atlanta through to the Eastern Conference Finals. And not to diminish what he offers Atlanta with the ball at his feet, but the real reason Almiron is such a game-changer for Atlanta—and one of the most valuable player in MLS—is how he changes Atlanta when the team doesn’t have the ball.

This manifests itself in a couple of ways. First and foremost is obviously the amount of ground he covers. His speed and fitness allow Atlanta to press the opposition in a wildly more effective way than without him in the lineup. This helps give the team solidity all over the pitch. The opposition is forced to play long, inaccurately, or both—making the lives of Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Michael Parkhurst & Co. much easier. Secondly, he forces the opposition to track where he is when they are attacking to try to prevent Almiron springing a counter. Sunday night, we saw both Maxime Chanot and Yangel Herrera cynically take Almiron out while he was running into open space in these situations. Even when Almiron isn’t making them pay with 25-yard golazos, those are still wins for the Five Stripes.

Tata Martino got his starting XI right (again)

Missing the ever-present Jeff Larentowicz with a mysterious muscle injury, Tata Martino elected to go with the second-year pro Miles Robinson to replace him as the right-sided center back in the same 5-3-2 shape the Argentine employed in the first leg. It was surprising to almost everyone who saw the starting lineup announcement an hour prior to the match, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Martino has admitted in the past that he’s not a manager who likes to change his teams from game-to-game, especially after his tactic had worked so well in New York. The result was a dominating first half performance from Atlanta United. While the team struggled to adjust the shape after Domenec Torrent made a change at halftime, the 5-3-2 was the foundation Atlanta needed to get itself going Sunday night, and the personnel selected—Miles Robinson especially—proved they were up for the task.

Atlanta United handled the pressure of the moment

Last week, I asked Michael Parkhurst about how his team would handle mental aspect of this second leg. There’s obviously the difficulty of handling a game in which the opponent has nothing to lose, but it’s especially tricky when you play for a team located in Atlanta.

Safe to say he was right. The team played on the front foot from the first minute, and I think it’s safe to say that any lingering effects we fans have from Decision Day can surely be laid to rest.

The vibes in Mercedes-Benz Stadium were as good as ever

No words from me necessary here. Just listen to what the players had to say about the crowd that has broken the one-million attendee mark this season:

Greg Garza

It’s incredible. These fans have been the same the last two years and we owe everything to them. No matter what situation, even last year in Columbus it didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but they were still there chanting their tails off. We definitely owe it to them, and we’re just fortunate to have the fan base that we do.

Tata Martino [about the tifo]

I’m very thankful for all the care that the fans have shown me over the last two years. I’ve been very involved with everything Atlanta United—with the players, the club, the fans—and I’m very thankful. It’s great that they are recognizing that [work].

Michael Parkhurst

It’s amazing. You run out of superlatives to talk about the crowd. They were so loud tonight. It’s just such a big boost. It’s awesome to play in front of them. Some players [around the world] might take it for granted, but we don’t. We understand what a privilege, what an honor it is to play in front of this crowd. Not everybody has that opportunity, and I’m just glad we put in a good performance.