Atlanta United head into the Eastern Conference Finals full of confidence, but will off-field distractions halt the Five Stripes’ championship hopes?
Atlanta United enters the Eastern Conference Championship after dominating New York City FC over two games to earn a 4-1 aggregate win, only to once again meet with the seemingly unsolvable puzzle the New York Red Bulls for a chance to host MLS Cup on December 8.
The match itself proves to be challenging enough for the Five Stripes and, with numerous other things going on outside of playoffs, the matchup is made even more difficult.
The first leg of the Eastern Conference Finals is set to be in Mercedes Benz Stadium on November 25 at 5 p.m. Viewers can count on the Atlanta faithful again showing up after breaking their own playoff attendance record when they hosted NYFC in the Eastern Conference semi-finals.
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Despite the rowdy and proud Atlanta faithful being in attendance, supporters have reason to be concerned with the upcoming international break which will take Brad Guzan, Miguel Almirón, Hector “Tito” Villalba, and Josef Martinez to play for their respective national teams. Darlington Nagbe was set to travel with the USMNT but had to withdraw due to injury.
Although some of the most pivotal parts of the Five Stripes will be away during the break, the New York Red Bulls have their own set of players traveling. Defender of the Year Aaron Long and midfielder Tyler Adams have been called up to join Guzan in the USMNT as they prepare to take on England and Italy.
The departure of some of Atlanta’s most influential players will prove to be challenging enough, but with the off-field rumors surrounding the club, it may become even more difficult for the Five Stripes to continue their run towards the illustrious MLS Cup.
The 2018 season began and people were already asking how long this team could stick together, with top-level players like Miguel Almirón and Josef Martinez receiving interest from European clubs. As the season comes to an end, those question marks loom even larger with Almirón almost surely making his last playoff run with Atlanta and still uncertainty surrounding the future of Martinez.
Along with the dynamic duo of Almirón and Martinez, the Atlanta faithful are already beginning to say goodbye to legendary manager Tata Martino as he announced earlier that he will not be returning to the club for the 2019 season. Although this situation has an element of certainty, the fact that Martino has chosen to depart could be a mental block for some of his players in the playoffs. It is hardly ideal, that is for sure.
After a dominating 2017 season ending in heartbreak, Atlanta United heads into the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals hoping to get the Red Bull monkey off their back to draw even closer to the club’s first ever trophy. The matchup alone seems like a daunting task, but with other distractions surrounding the team, the challenge might just be that much more difficult.