Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer, captain Michael Parkhurst and veteran Jeff Larentowicz spoke frequently on Tuesday about playing with intensity being one of the keys to performing well in Thursday’s Champions League game against Herediano in Costa Rica.
Those quotes were underlined and put in bold later that night when a lifeless and unfocused Toronto opened the MLS account in this year’s version of the Champions League with a 4-0 drubbing from Independiente in Panama.
“I think we have more quality, but not always quality wins,” de Boer said of Herediano. “If you don’t put the same energy in as them, you will have a very difficult game, for sure.”
Concentration, intensity focus, energy … whatever word fits best is what the 18 players de Boer selects on Thursday will need for Atlanta United’s debut in the tournament.
The stadium in Costa Rica seats around 8,700. Very few will be wearing Atlanta United’s red and black.
The venue opened in 1951, making it 66 years older than Atlanta United’s home of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The turf will be very hard, which can cause the ball to take odd bounces.
The lighting is equivalent to that of a local recreation center.
De Boer, who has never played or coached in Central America, and his staff spoke to the players on Tuesday about what to expect.
“It’s a new experience,” he said. “I said to the players, the circumstances at Herediano are different, unlike in our stadium. They are more used to it than us. We have to adapt to those circumstances. I think they are ready.”
And Herediano will likely come out with intensity similar to Houston in last year’s disastrous opener, or Red Bulls’ in last year’s dispiriting loss in New Jersey.
If Atlanta United comes out as flat as it did in those games, or as flat as spiraling Toronto did on Tuesday, the Five Stripes could be out of the tournament before they have a chance to host the return leg next week at Kennesaw State.
Parkhurst has experience playing in Central America as a member of the U.S. national team.
He described the region as a “beast.”
Once the games start, salaries don’t matter. Being MLS Cup champs won’t matter. Being the darlings of the league won’t matter.
“People who aren’t used to it think it should easy for the U.S. to qualify, it should be easy for U.S. teams to go to Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and beat teams easily,” he said. “It’s just not the case.
“These guys, when the play against U.S. teams, when the play against MLS teams, they play the best games of their lives, they play the best games of their year. They play with passion and pride. If you don’t adapt and you aren’t mentally into it and focused, you can get beaten. It can happen to us. We can go down there and lose.”
Because of the gamesmanship and environment, Larentowicz, who has played friendlies and Champions League games in Central America, said that while you are playing soccer, the factors can make it feel like you are playing a different game. For example, he was once hit by a corn cob thrown by an angry supporter in Honduras.
But, Parkhurst said that’s where the preparation and mentality of Atlanta United’s players should come through.
The team bounced back from that 4-0 loss at Houston in last year’s opener to go unbeaten in its next eight. It bounced back from that loss to Red Bulls to knock them out of the playoffs. It shut out Portland to win the MLS Cup in just its second season.
“Teams are looking to beat you, looking to prove themselves,” Larentowicz said. “That’s the mentality you have to be prepared for.”
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