Atlanta United: Focus cannot slip before playoffs

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 27: Head coach Frank de Boer of Atlanta United reacts during the U.S. Open Cup Final vs Minnesota United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on August 27, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 27: Head coach Frank de Boer of Atlanta United reacts during the U.S. Open Cup Final vs Minnesota United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on August 27, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images) /

Atlanta United travel to FC Cincinnati on Wednesday night. While a win is expected, they cannot allow their focus to slip as the playoffs loom.

With their playoff spot already assured, Atlanta United’s trip to struggling FC Cincinnati on Wednesday night might not seem like an entirely important fixture.

However, coming off the back off two straight defeats, the first time they have suffered back-to-back losses since May, the Five Stripes need to rediscover their mojo as the postseason approaches.

Frank de Boer’s side enjoyed a stunning August, sealing the Campeones Cup with a 3-2 win over Club America, beating rivals Orlando City in the U.S. Open Cup semi-final before going on to hoist the trophy with a 2-1 win over Minnesota United. They also won every MLS game they played with 2018-esque style.

But September has brought the reigning champions right back down to earth, and although the loss away to Philadelphia Union can be somewhat brushed aside given their standing in the Eastern Conference, the home defeat to Columbus is worrying. Atlanta took a half-time lead in that game through Josef Martinez but never looked fully in control. They allowed Caleb Porter’s side far too much space and possession and when Gyasi Zardes equalised on 53 minutes, few could complain.

Columbus went on to take an unlikely 3-1 victory and post-game comments from players and staff suggest Atlanta had not only been off the pace during the game but also in training sessions in the build-up. Julian Gressel admitted:

"“I think we deserved this, not just today because of our performance but leading up to the game this week with the way we trained. We’ve just got to take a look in the mirror. Definitely not worth No. 1 in the East today. All we can do is focus on Wednesday, and hopefully prepare better and then play better and get three points.”"

Never one to mince his words, de Boer was quick to agree with his wing-back, adding, ‘We weren’t sharp enough. We were 1-0 up [at halftime] but you had the feeling we weren’t there today. We were rusty today. We had also two trainings [sic] that I think the sharpness wasn’t there.’

Indeed, a lack of intensity and desire did appear to be an issue against Columbus. Atlanta United attempted just seven tackles in the opposition half during that game, while most of the tackles in their own half occurred around the edge of the box and deep into Five Stripe territory. As mentioned, they showed the visitors far too much respect.

Compare that to Atlanta’s 2-1 win over New York City FC last month, arguably one of the most complete performances of the de Boer era. In that victory, the Five Stripes attempted 11 tackles in the opposition half and drew a clear line of confrontation along the halfway mark. There was a clear difference in intensity between these performances.

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Wednesday’s match against FC Cincinnati may well offer similar problems to that of Columbus, even if they’re a little less cultured in their play. Cincinnati will be high on confidence after their 1-0 win away at Montreal last time out and are playing with absolutely nothing to lose. Catching Atlanta off guard would make for one impressive scalp and something the entire franchise can get behind as a turning point.

As Cincinnati midfielder Emmanuel Ledesma noted after the win over Montreal, he and his team will be fully prepared for this one:

"“We have to keep the same mind and mentality and spirit. Wednesday we’re going to be there with the same mentality, focused all on the same page again”"

Of course, with Martinez in red hot form, Gonzalo Martinez still improving, and the likes of Miles Robinson and Eric Remedi likely keen to atone for unusually poor performances against Columbus, there is every chance Atlanta will turn up to Nippert Stadium and brush Cincinnati aside.

Next. Atlanta United: 3 things to watch this week. dark

In fact, with LAFC now looking vulnerable and only a few games left to gather momentum before the playoffs, you could say it is absolutely vital that they do. Their unique, ‘win at all costs’ mentality demands as much.