Atlanta United: What team history says about knockout tournaments

Atlanta United (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Atlanta United (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images) /

Next week, Atlanta United return to action in the MLS is Back Tournament. What does their history in knockout tournaments indicate about their possible performance?

Major League Soccer is coming back very soon in the form of a knockout tournament named, you guessed it, the MLS is Back Tournament. All tournament-naming jokes aside, the return of MLS means the return of one of the quirkiest soccer leagues in the world. It also means the return of Atlanta United.

The MLS is Back Tournament will, as of now, feature all 26 clubs. Teams are split up into groups of four with the exception of Group A, which is a group of six. All teams will play three games, with the top two teams from each group and the top three teams from Group A advancing to the knockout round, as well as the three next-best teams based on total points.

Knockout tournaments are inherently unique. Form is more important than consistency. The best team often does not win the competition. It is about mastering the moment, not relentlessly winning games over a longer period.

Atlanta United are no strangers to knockout tournaments. They have experience in three U.S. Open Cups, winning the competition last year, and have embarked on three MLS Cup Playoff runs. They even have experience in the one-off Campeones Cup.

Using their performances from those tournaments, we can look at how Atlanta will fare in Orlando should they advance to the unique knockout stages.

2017 – U.S. Open Cup, MLS Cup Playoffs

Atlanta did not perform well in their knockout opportunities in 2017. A few factors contributed to the club’s poor overall performance in knockout tournaments. First, the team was experiencing its inaugural season in MLS. A lack of chemistry and experience was apparent. Second, the team battled injuries and dealt with a lack of depth given their status as an expansion club.

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Atlanta only advanced to the Round of 16 in the U.S. Open Cup in 2017. They first beat the second division Charleston Battery 3-2 before losing 3-2 to second division side, Miami FC, Fn the following round. The latter match did not feature any of Atlanta’s main attacking three: Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, and Yamil Asad.

In the MLS Cup Playoffs Atlanta hosted Columbus Crew in the first round. Despite a toe-to-toe affair, the match went to penalties after neither team managed to score. Atlanta lost 3-1 on penalties.

2017 knockout record: 1 win, 2 losses

2018 – U.S. Open Cup, MLS Cup Playoffs

Atlanta once again struggled in the U.S. Open Cup under manager Tata Martino. The Five Stripes dispatched Charleston easily in their first match but failed to score in the following round against the Chicago Fire in a 1-0 loss. Martino did not play a full-strength first team against Chicago.

Due to the two-legged nature of the MLS Cup playoffs, the only other knockout game in 2018 came was MLS Cup Final itself against the Portland Timbers. Atlanta played extremely well, winning 2-0 and bringing home the city’s first major championship in over 20 years. This win came on the heels of a strong playoff run through two rounds of two-legged competition.

2018 knockout record: 2 wins, 1 loss

2019 – U.S. Open Cup, Campeones Cup, MLS Cup Playoffs

Under new manager, Frank de Boer, Atlanta United performed well in their knockout situations in 2019. They won all five of their U.S. Open Cup matches, including the final. They outscored the opposition 12-4 and only trailed in 59 out of a possible 480 minutes. The Five Stripes were only forced into extra-time once in their opening match against Charleston.

In the Campeones Cup, a one-off super cup against Campeon de Campeones winner Club America, Atlanta won 3-2 in a back-and-forth affair. It was another example of Atlanta excelling in a knockout situation in 2019.

In the MLS Cup Playoffs that fall, Atlanta continued a solid performance. They won their first knockout match against the New England Revolution 1-0, then followed that win up with another against the Philadelphia Union. The Five Stripes finally fell 2-1 to Toronto in the next round, although injuries to Josef Martinez and Miles Robinson likely affected that outcome.

2019 knockout record: 8 wins, 1 loss


The sample size is small, but there is a clear difference in results between Martino and de Boer. Part of this can be attributed to de Boer’s line-up choices as compared to Martino’s choices. No one can say for sure, but it appears de Boer is more concerned with winning these types of matches while Martino tended to focus on the league campaign.

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There may not be direct causation from de Boer and the success in knockouts his team enjoyed, but the positive results in one-off matches in 2019 cannot be ignored, especially since it led to multiple trophies. Should they make it to the knockout stages, then, based on their experience of knockout tournaments, Atlanta United should be expected to compete for MLS is Back.