By the numbers: Atlanta United’s playoff chase

Atlanta United midfielder Derrick Etienne (18) and defender Caleb Wiley (26) celebrate after forward Giorgos Giakoumakis (7) scores against D.C. United during the first half of an MLS match Saturday, June 10, 2023 at Mercedes Benz Stadium.  (Daniel Varnado/ For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Combined ShapeCaption
Atlanta United midfielder Derrick Etienne (18) and defender Caleb Wiley (26) celebrate after forward Giorgos Giakoumakis (7) scores against D.C. United during the first half of an MLS match Saturday, June 10, 2023 at Mercedes Benz Stadium. (Daniel Varnado/ For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Atlanta United has 16 games remaining in its MLS regular season, starting with Wednesday’s match against NYCFC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The team wants to finish at least fourth in the Eastern Conference so that it will get to host the first playoff match and possibly two in a best-of-three series. Currently, the Five Stripes are sixth with 28 points.

Here is a countdown of items that will determine if the team can achieve that goal:

Five key games

June 24 at Red Bulls: Atlanta United has never defeated the Red Bulls in a regular-season match in Harrisonburg, N.J. Red Bulls are struggling this season. It may fail to make the playoffs. Getting at least a point here is important. It will be Luiz Araujo’s last with the team.

July 12 at New England: The Revs are in third in the East, five points ahead of the Five Stripes. The Revs can still be caught but Atlanta United must get a win in this one. The summer transfer window will have opened.

July 15 vs. Orlando: Atlanta United is two points ahead of Orlando, but the Floridians have played one less match. This one is at Mercedes-Benz, so Atlanta United should win but the transfer window will have already opened and there could be several changes to Atlanta United’s roster. Plus, it comes just a few days after Atlanta United’s match against the Revs. Fatigue may play a factor.

Oct. 4 at Philadelphia: The Union are currently in fourth, two points ahead of Atlanta United despite playing one less match.

Oct. 21 at Cincinnati: It’s the season finale. Cincinnati may still be playing to win the Supporters’ Shield. Atlanta United may need three points to clinch a higher possible seed in the postseason. Strange things have happened in the past when the teams have met in the finales.

Four key players

This list won’t include three of Atlanta United’s best players because Thiago Almada, Miles Robinson and Caleb Wiley may not be with the team beyond the closing of the transfer window. Here are four players that should be with the team throughout and who will play important parts in the team’s playoff chase.

Giorgos Giakoumakis: If he scores enough goals to remain in the race for the Golden Boot, and he’s in the running with 10, three behind Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar, then Atlanta United should be fine.

JuanJo Purata: In the unlikely event Robinson, whose contract ends at the end of the season, is transferred or traded, he will have to anchor the defensive line. Interestingly, Purata’s loan is over at the end of the season. He’s playing to convince Atlanta United, or some other team, that he’s worth a contract.

Derrick Etienne: The prized signing in free agency before the season has yet to score and has just two assists. It seems improbable that the winger’s stats won’t improve. If they do, it will help offset the sale of Luiz Araujo and take pressure of Giakoumakis.

Brad Guzan: His experience and leadership in goal will be key. His eight-save performance against LAFC shows he has plenty left. He may also be playing to convince the team to pick up the option on his contract at season’s end.

Three big decisions

If the team receives good offers, should it go ahead and sell Almada, one of the most exciting players in MLS with seven goals and nine assists, Wiley, one of the most exciting young players in MLS with three goals and two assists, and possibly Robinson, arguably the best one-on-one defender in the league.

The team doesn’t have to do anything with Almada and Wiley. They will still be under contract past this season. Robinson’s contract expires at season’s end.

If it takes nine points from its next three games and climbs higher up the table, will President Garth Lagerwey and Vice President Carlos Bocanegra risk the momentum by selling Almada and Wiley, presuming it receives quality offers for the attacking midfielder and winger.

The team could sell both but also negotiate that each stays with the club on loan until season’s end.

The decision regarding Robinson may not happen because teams know his contract ends. Why would they trade assets or make a transfer offer when they know they can negotiate for free directly with Robinson if they just remain patient? Their thinking may be if they need a lock-down defender for their own playoff run this season, or if they want to try to go ahead, bring him in, and negotiate in hopes of signing him to a longer deal.

Each decision also requires a subsequent choice of what to do with the money. The team already has one Designated Player slot open with the sale of Araujo to Brazil’s Flamengo.

Two key dates

The opening (July 5) and closing (August 2) of the summer window. The team has a history of trying to make impactful signings in the summer. That history, though, is mixed. Araujo, Marcelino Moreno, Jurgen Damm, Edwin Mosquera, Alan Franco, JuanJo Purata and Emerson Hyndman are a few of the signings or loans the team brought in during the secondary window.

One goal

Hosting a playoff match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium is the team’s stated goal in its pursuit of winning its second MLS Cup. Nine teams will advance to the playoffs. The top four, and the eighth seed, will get to host the first match in a postseason series. Atlanta United’s goal is to finish fourth or higher, not eighth.

Seeds 8-9 will play in a wildcard round. The wildcard matches are scheduled to be played Oct. 25 and 26.

Seeds 1-7 will automatically qualify for a best-of-three series that will be played after the wildcard round. The series are scheduled to be played Oct. 28 through Nov. 12. The top seed will host the winner of the 8/9 wildcard game. The second seed will host the seventh seed, etc.

The conference semifinals and finals are scheduled to be played Nov. 25 through Dec. 3. MLS Cup is scheduled to be played Dec. 9.


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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule

Feb. 25 Atlanta United 2, San Jose Earthquakes 1

March 4 Atlanta United 1, Toronto FC 1

March 11 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte FC 0

March 18 Atlanta United 5, Portland 1

March 25 Columbus 6, Atlanta United 1

April 1 Atlanta United 1, New York Red Bulls 0

April 8 Atlanta United 1, New York City FC 1

April 15 Atlanta United 2, Toronto FC 2

April 23 Atlanta United 2, Chicago 1

April 29 Nashville SC 3, Atlanta United 1

May 6 Inter Miami CF 2, Atlanta United 1

May 13 Charlotte 3, Atlanta United 1

May 17 Atlanta United 4, Colorado 0

May 20 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 3

May 27 Atlanta United 1, Orlando 1

May 31 Atlanta United 3, New England 3

June 7 Atlanta United 0, LAFC 0

June 10 Atlanta United 3, D.C. United 1

June 21 vs. New York City FC, 7:30 p.m.

June 24 at New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

July 2 vs. Philadelphia Union, 4 p.m., Fox

July 8 at CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 12 at New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m.

July 15 vs. Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m., FS1

July 25 at Miami in Leagues Cup, 7:30 p.m.

July 29 vs. Cruz Azul in Leagues Cup, 8 p.m.

Aug. 20 at Seattle Sounders, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 26 vs. Nashville SC, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 30 vs. FC Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 2 at FC Dallas, 8:30 p.m.

Sept. 16 vs. Inter Miami CF, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 20 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 23 vs. CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 4 at Philadelphia Union, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 7 vs. Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 21 at FC Cincinnati, TBA

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