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Brooks Lennon: This team has a very great chance to make the playoffs

It feels like the last matches of the season are going to be nerve-wracking

MLS: Atlanta United FC at FC Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

MLS can be a wild league; the word “parity” has been thrown around often this year because only a handful of teams have been able to break away from the pack. The Eastern Conference feels especially like the Hunger Games for any teams below third place as the last portion of the season arrives.

As of the time of this writing (between Saturday and Sunday match days), Atlanta United now sits at 13th in the conference with a game in hand on many of the teams above them. However, hope is a funny thing, and the Five Stripes sit only five points from fifth place and eight points from a home playoff position.

Atlanta traveled to Cincinnati on Saturday in an attempt to turn the tide of away-game luck in their favor. After an outstanding 2-1 win over Seattle last week, the team desperately needed to flip the script on their inability to build a winning streak. The aforementioned parity in the conference has kept the Five Stripes alive, but the season is rapidly winding down and a good result would only build confidence after defeating the Sounders for the first time in club history.

What unfolded at TQL Stadium was a rather entertaining, hard-fought 2-2 draw in which Atlanta United showed flashes of perhaps their best football of the year. Unfortunately, their intermittent defensive mishaps reared their ugly head, as well, keeping the team from a full three points.

Atlanta stepped onto the pitch and looked absolutely dominant for the first 20 minutes, with both Thiago Almada and captain Marcelino Moreno banging shots off the woodwork. There was also a rather obvious handball against Cincy in the box that wasn’t called. In fact, Cincinnati barely touched the ball for the first 3 minutes of the match, and Atlanta’s effort was eventually rewarded as Almada sent a textbook shot into the top right corner of the net in the 17th minute (which better be nominated, MLS).

The visitors continued to push for a second, but then the proverbial switch was flipped and the match got turned on its head with Cincy scoring two before the half. Both were rather preventable goals, which simply makes the result that much more frustrating. The second half started and initially didn’t look much better, but Gonzalo Pineda used most of his subs and changed the dynamic of the team. Josef Martinez and Dom Dwyer formed the tip of a 4-4-2 spear while Araujo shifted left and Edwin Mosquera and Brooks Lennon entered on the right.

The energetic response from many of the subs pushed Atlanta into more dangerous positions as Thiago Almada continued to pace the attack, and inevitably the Five Stripes pulled one back via club hero club legend Andrew Gutman for the second time in two weeks, and the goal also happened to be the 20,000th MLS goal scored...storybook.

The goal was checked by VAR for a potential offside call, but the soccer gods clearly remembered the earlier missed handball and decided against punishing the Five Stripes further. The match closed out with an outstanding Rocco Rios Novo save and one final peach of a cross by Edwin Mosquera that almost found Josef in the box.

A draw isn’t what the team required, but it can be argued that the result did, in fact, build on the momentum from the Seattle match. The group looked more dangerous in the attack with Santiago Sosa sitting in front of Juanjo Purata, Alan Franco, and Andrew Gutman, which allowed Almada and Moreno to facilitate the offense while dropping back if necessary. This starting lineup was probably one of the most enjoyable to watch this season, but the Red Bulls are coming to town on Wednesday. The Five Stripes are likely going to make some adjustments to try and pull off their first regular season win against a high-pressing team they gave away a result to earlier in the season, but if the energy from the past two matches can be unleashed, the chances will come.

Pineda, Lennon, and Gutman spoke to the media after the match where they hit on the defensive mishaps and the aspirations of the club to make the playoffs. The positivity seems to still permeate the team, which is great, so hopefully a loud Mercedes-Benz Stadium can push them up the standings Wednesday night. Check out everything they had to say below, and also be sure to drop your comments and thoughts!

Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda

On the nature of Cincinnati’s two goals...

“I mean, it’s concerning because it cost us two more points. But anyways, we will continue. I think just not losing and the grind that the team showed at the end, trying to win, even in the last play we tried to win. That’s the desire I want from my team and I felt that today we did a very good job in many, many aspects but we couldn’t reward ourselves with three points.”

On if there’s any updates on Andrew Gutman and Alan Franco...

“Andrew just said he felt tired, it was a bit precautionary. He’s coming back from an injury so he told me that it started to feel tight so he preferred to go out at that moment. Alan, he was stepped, in one of the throw-ins, someone stepped on his foot in that play but I think both are okay.”

On the performance of Thiago Almada, playing in a deeper role than he has usually played...

“Actually, the first half, he was playing more as an attacking midfielder, next to Marcelino [Moreno]. But he’s so good to identify the spaces and the gaps. When they try to put pressure on us, he was always able to find the gaps but naturally he does that, it wasn’t a proper instruction but after that, he led us in final third entries today so I don’t feel like he was particularly deep. Yes at the end, we changed to kind of a 4-4-2 with Dom [Dwyer] and Jo [Josef Martínez], it was Santi [Santiago Sosa] and him at center-mid but he was more advanced. I felt like he just identified the space in those areas, he just attacked and he was very good.”

Atlanta United defender Brooks Lennon

On how it felt to return from injury

“Great. Obviously, it was a grind being out. You never want to be out injured. I’m proud of myself the way I worked with the trainers, the physios and to be able to come back and feel as fit as I did today. Great to be back with the team today and good to get a tie away from home, especially to come from behind a goal. So, I’m very happy to be back.”

On the injury itself

“Everything happens in life for a reason. I really believe that. Like I said, I’m proud how I handled the situation. I slipped. It just happens in life. I’m back and it’s full-court press the rest of the season for us to pick up as many points as we can to make the playoffs.”

On the team’s form and what he saw from the team from the bench

“I think it’s good to see most of our players back healthy. We only have 2-3 guys who are available this season still out with injury. I think we have the majority of our guys back. And that’s great to have with a couple of games left in the season. You need everyone. For me personally, I’m just looking to continue to build on what I did the first 13-14 games of the season. To provide width, create chances for the team going forward. And helping the backline not concede. As long as we don’t concede goals, especially on the road, you’re going to pick up a point at least. And we have so much talent going forward that we’re going to create chances. I think this team has a very great chance to make the playoffs. Yes, we have a tough couple of games coming up, but there’s no team in the league that we’re scared.”

Atlanta United defender Andrew Gutman

On his opinion of the team’s standing and capability to make the playoffs

“I think it was a good performance away from home. I haven’t looked at the table after tonight’s games, but previously, I knew that if we won, we would have jumped a few places. So the table is super tight. It can go either way. It’s all about getting on runs. The biggest thing for us is getting points at home. We have five games left at home; we need to win all of those. On the road, at the minimum we need to draw. But at the moment, the team is gelling, and I think it’s possible.”

On his role on the pitch, particular as a left center back

“I think it’s a work in progress. Obviously, it’s the first time this year that I played left center back. I played it last year so I’m familiar with it. We’re a very possession-based team. We want to play out of the back, create overloads, swing the ball, and make the defense make decisions. If that’s me swinging into the midfield and Caleb pushing higher, then I’m going to do that. I think Gonzalo is very good with trusting me and trusting my abilities – whether that’s wing back, left back, left center back – I’m just hoping to continue playing well for him.”

On the goal and when he found out it was the 20,000th goal in MLS history

“Right after the game. Our kit man Scottie [Tranilla] made me sign a ball for it.”

As usual, give our Twitter Spaces a listen below as we discuss the match, the result, and everything else surrounding the club right now. Vamos.