Atlanta United finds its footballing way again

Atlanta United defeated NYCFC 1-0 on Sunday at Yankee Stadium in the first leg of an Eastern Conference semifinal. (Atlanta United)

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Atlanta United defeated NYCFC 1-0 on Sunday at Yankee Stadium in the first leg of an Eastern Conference semifinal. (Atlanta United)

Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was pushed down. He got back up.

Greg Garza was kicked. He got back up.

Josef Martinez threw himself into a tackle to stop a shot. He got back up.

It's not just that Atlanta United defeated NYCFC 1-0 on Sunday at Yankee Stadium, a place the Cityzenz lost just once this season, in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals. It was that the Five Stripes did it with a grit that goalkeeper Brad Guzan said he hasn't seen from them all season.

“For me, what was even more impressive than the result was our performance,” Guzan said. “And our performance was that in terms of grittiness, fighting, scraping. It was ugly at times and I don’t think we’ve shown, especially in big moments against good teams we haven’t shown that all season.”

It may seem an odd thing to say considering that Atlanta United finished tied for the second-most points (69) in league history, but a look at the team’s performances in big games and it’s hard to argue. They typically played with a cool efficiency, as if they had a heart that was barely pumping. A thumping in the season-opening game at Houston. A loss to Red Bulls at home. A loss at Dallas on the road. A loss at D.C. United on the road. Losses at Red Bulls and at Toronto on the road.

That final loss cost Atlanta United the Supporters’ Shield and for manager Gerardo Martino to say that the team had betrayed itself and lost its footballing way.

It’s not that Atlanta United didn’t want to win, or were flat for those entire games, but they didn’t have the intensity for 90 minutes like they did against NYCFC.

Atlanta United found its way again.

“That’s the way you have to play every game, regular season or the playoffs, it doesn’t matter,” Martino said. “That’s the attitude. In the first half, I think we played some really good football. In the second half New York City had a little bit more of the possession.”

Another good example is how well Atlanta United played its set pieces, whose success can sometimes boil down to one player trying harder than his opponent.

Atlanta United was dangerous throughout the night on corner kicks and free kicks. Its player routinely beat NYCFC’s to spots. Miguel Almiron’s goal from a corner kick was called back. Eric Remedi’s winning goal also came from a corner kick.

“We didn’t defend well, the set pieces especially,” NYCFC’s manager Domenec Torrent said. “Every single corner, every single free kick, they could finish. We have to improve because in a semifinal or a final, you have to be focused on that, in every single action.”

Garza said he was told before the game to set a tone. The fullback is scrappy, often spending as much time on the ground as he does running up and down the left flank. Making his first start since undergoing shoulder injury in May, Garza played as tough as the boxer that he looks like with his square jaw and chest.

“I think I can be a bit contagious and bring that fight, that American mentality,” he said. “I was told to do that before the game and did it throughout the game. Hopefully, it was contagious to everyone else to really find that mentality that we didn’t have the past few games.”