The pain of losing the Supporters’ Shield may be what helps Atlanta United fulfill its bigger goal of winning the MLS Cup.
The Five Stripes can take the next step Sunday against NYCFC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium by at least holding on to the 1-0 lead they built last week at Yankee Stadium by playing with toughness and guile, attributes they didn’t always show in key losses at the New York Red Bulls or at Toronto late in the season that cost them the Shield.
“Two games where we were disappointed, not only with the outcome but the performance, the energy, the everything,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said. “It’s only valuable if you can learn from it and use it. We’ve only done it for half. We need to realize the intensity we brought for leg one and bring it for the leg two.”
If they can’t bring the intensity, and NYCFC comes out the winner Sunday, Atlanta United’s season will end prematurely for the second consecutive season. And it will end without a trophy. Atlanta United hasn’t hid the fact that it expects to win at least one trophy this season. There is only one left.
Which is why consistent intensity has been an issue.
Bringing intensity once could be considered an anomaly, especially when considering that Atlanta United has had trouble matching the energy of opponents in more than just those two games in the past two seasons.
In good news for the team and its supporters, Parkhurst and Martino said everyone was as focused during training this week as they were before last week’s game.
“I think we saw it last week,” Martino said. “The loss at Toronto was a blow, but the important thing is how the team responded. The team responded well.”
Atlanta United likely will need every ounce of intensity it can muster internally, as well as what it can gather from the more than 70,000 who are expected to be at the game, because NYCFC is expected to come out and quickly try to score the first goal.
“This game is different and special because we’re going after this game, and we’ve got nothing to lose,” NYCFC’s Anton Tinnerholm was quoted as saying on mlssoccer.com. “We know we are 1-0 down and they have to defend a 1-0 lead. I think we have to turn it around and go after and play like we have nothing to lose. If the score is going to be tied (1-1) at the end of the game, they’re going to be scared.”
Of course, if Atlanta United gets the first goal in the opening 15 minutes, NYCFC’s season likely will be done.
“If we score early it puts them in a very, very bad place,” Parkhurst said. “We are going to have the home crowd with us. The energy will be high.”
Aside from lessons about intensity, Atlanta United said it learned that substance matters more than style. Though it led the league in goals scored (70) during the regular season, it doesn’t need to score Sunday if it can post another shutout. That likely will require playing with the same grit it showed in New York.
“I think you always have to play like that,” Martino said. “Difference between the playoffs and a regular season. Playoffs are different. More intensity. Those are the two biggest things in the playoffs: play with intensity and not make mistakes.”
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