MLS Cup Playoffs are here, and Atlanta United must prove itself again
With the Five Stripes’ 3-1 win over the New England Revolution on Decision Day, Atlanta United’s roller coaster 2019 regular season under Frank de Boer is in the books. While it rewarded Atlanta with the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, it’s essentially a closed chapter at this point. With the playoffs finally upon us, the only thing that matters for Atlanta United — and every team in the league — is the next game.
But the upcoming playoffs represent more for Atlanta than a mere quest for a championship. It’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for the league’s defending playoff champions to truly reestablish themselves alongside the league’s elite in Los Angeles FC and New York City FC. The truth is, the shine has worn off Atlanta United’s MLS Cup-winning credentials since rightfully claiming the trophy last season. Because let’s be honest, it’s been a roller coaster year for the team under Frank de Boer in his first season as manager. The heights of winning the U.S. Open Cup and fighting its way back into the Eastern Conference title race have been tarnished by the lows of, well, needing to fight its way into the Eastern Conference title race. Injuries and inconsistent performances have plagued the team to the point where we can safely say it’s been knocked down a peg. And yes, the team has faced a brutally compressed schedule, but even Frank de Boer told media last week, “that’s a weak excuse.”
Atlanta United needs to play much better when they host rematch in two weeks
A 3-1 win is fun and good, but Sunday’s Decision Day matchup showed Atlanta United’s vulnerabilities at the back as New England sliced through them time and again. It was a game with an insane amount of action with Atlanta edging the shots advantage 19-18, but New England besting the home side in xG 1.93-1.83. For as much as Atlanta created — and it did play an attractive game with lots of chances itself — it also conceded chance after chance. Despite taking a lead in just the third minute, Darlington Nagbe’s sublime finish could very well have been an equalizer had Cristian Penilla done better in a 1-on-1 against Brad Guzan in the game’s opening moments. The three-minute period was a microcosm of what was a slugfest in which Atlanta just so happened to land a couple more punches.
Frank de Boer has selection issues
Atlanta’s manager dropped Pity Martinez to the bench Sunday in favor of a solid three-man midfield of Larentowicz-Nagbe-Hyndman. This left two positions for Atlanta’s three DPs to fill. In fairness, Pity has not had any sort of break recently, He’s started and played at least 76 minutes in his team’s last 10 matches going back to the start of August while the other two have missed time through injury. And speaking of injuries, it makes sense for Josef and Barco to have started to get them up to full match fitness for the playoffs.
But the selection decision don’t just exist in the attack. Does Jeff Larnetowicz’s presence in the XI the last two games mean he’s usurped Eric Remedi in de Boer’s midfield? Is Atlanta really gonna roll with Franco Escobar as a center back? He’s yet to convince for extended durations at the position, with his best period of form clearly coming at Julian Gressel’s position at right wingback.