August 15, 2017 Atlanta: Atlanta United President Darren Eales talks soccer during a Mercedes-Benz Stadium open house tour on Monday, August 15, 2017, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Atlanta United ready for season-defining stretch

Atlanta United barely is above the symbolic crimson cutoff that signifies in each conference which six teams will have a chance to the win the MLS Cup, and the five that will begin working toward next season with a bit of a head start.

The Five Stripes are in sixth and not likely where many thought they would be heading into last week’s two-game trip to play D.C. United and Philadelphia, one that netted one of a possible six points.

But, they are in the fight that likely will come down to five teams battling for four spots. The other teams are Columbus, Chicago, the New York Red Bulls and Montreal.

“We are in a good spot,” Atlanta United midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said. “We are above the red line now.”

Atlanta United has a few advantages on the teams it will try to outpace in its bid to become the first expansion team since Seattle in 2009 to make the playoffs.

First, it will play its next six games in its new home, $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The stretch will start Sept. 10 vs. Dallas.

“It can almost feel like a new season for us,” Larentowicz said.

In fact, eight of Atlanta United’s final 10 regular-season games will be played at home. That’s the most of any team in the league. Of the teams it will fight for a playoff spots, Chicago, the New York Red Bulls and Montreal will have four home games and Columbus will have three.

MLS teams are winning 67.5 percent of their home games this season. Atlanta United is outpacing the league average by going 6-2-1 (.722) at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

Fullback Greg Garza put an even bigger target on the goals for Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“Glad to be home, and now we can focus on these six games and get five out of six wins. That’d be a huge push to the playoffs,” he said. “Hopefully that can happen, and that’s what we are set on right now.”

The second advantage is Atlanta United will face just three teams that currently are above the red line: Dallas, at New York Red Bulls on Oct. 15 and vs. Toronto in the regular-season finale Oct. 22. Montreal is tied with Atlanta United on points (36), but it has the second tie-breaker of goal-difference. The first tie-breaker is games won. Atlanta United will host Montreal on Sept. 24.

The third advantage is games in hand. Because of the construction delays that pushed back the opening of Mercedes-Benz Stadium and caused various scheduling calisthenics for Atlanta United, the team has played the fewest games in MLS (24).

It has four games in hand on Columbus, two on Chicago, and one each on the New York Red Bulls and Montreal. 

So, Columbus’ six-point advantage doesn’t look insurmountable because Atlanta United can at least tie Columbus by winning two of those four games. Chicago has a five-point advantage, and the Red Bulls have a three-point advantage.

The team does face at least one disadvantage: The six-game stretch of home games will be played in 18 days ... on turf.

“You are in the final stretch of the season and you are playing every three days,” Garza said. “Every guy that has their shirt called, they need to be training as hard as possible and be ready. I’m sure Tata (manager Gerardo Martino) has a list of all 26-27 plaeyrs to be ready for every single game we have in September.”

Garza said he doesn’t care where Atlanta United finishes, as long as it’s in the playoffs.

The players are confident that will happen.

“To be above the red line going into a run of home games, it’s basically in our hands now,” Atlanta United midfielder Chris McCann said. “We are confident at home. We are a good side at home. Hopefully we can pick up as much points as possible and solidify ourselves in the top six.”

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