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Atlanta United’s intensity missing recently in big games

About to face NYCFC in Yankee Stadium in the first leg of the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals, Atlanta United isn’t running away from the fact that it has a recent problem with intensity.

In its past two road games against quality opponents - at Toronto last week when it had a chance to clinch the Supporters’ Shield, and at the New York Red Bulls when it had a chance to end the race weeks ago -- Atlanta United was outplayed and outscored 6-1.

That doesn’t bode well for Sunday’s match and the high level of concentration that playing at Yankee Stadium demands.

“We need to be much, much better in big games if we want to hoist the Cup in a few weeks,” captain Michael Parkhurst said.

It is odd that a team filled with intense players such as Brad Guzan, Josef Martinez and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, and that set numerous records this season, has failed to show up in the recent games that have mattered most. Including the game at a then-surging D.C. United, Atlanta United has been outscored 9-2 in its past three road games against quality opponents since Sept. 1.

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“There are just days, just some days where you wake up feeling strange or not as comfortable,” Gonzalez Pirez said. “I don’t think it’s a long-term issue for us. Only two games, plus the second half in New York City (earlier this season), where the other team was superior to us.”

Instead, Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said that part of his job this week has been to remind his players of everything they have accomplished this season, using the cliche of noticing the forest and not the tree that was the Toronto game. The team had the second-most points (69) in league history and set the record for away victories (10) and clinched a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League tournament, for example.

A confident team should be an intense team. 

“What we are trying to do now is to regain our best version,” he said. “We want to play football, be intense and circulate the ball.”

The team has seen the level of intensity they expect to see, and will need to match, in New York from the Knockout Round games already played in the East and West. Three lower seeds, Columbus, Portland and Real Salt Lake, won. The only higher seed to win was NYCFC, which brushed aside Philadelphia 3-1.

“We need to make sure we bring that as well,” Parkhurst said. “It’s not always going to be pretty. It doesn’t have to be pretty in the postseason.”

Parkhurst said the team hasn’t engaged in any exercises this week to try to increase its intensity. He said even in the games where they didn’t play well, the intensity during training sessions those weeks was good. He said it has been good again this week.

“The weeks leading up to those games were good,” he said. “Focus has been good. Guys understand the moment and opportunity we have, but that’s just talk and just training. We have to go out and prove it.”

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