Atlanta United happy, focused on NYCFC in MLS playoffs

Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco #8 dribbles the ball during the match against Inter Miami at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Wednesday October 27, 2021. (Photo by Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)
Atlanta United midfielder Ezequiel Barco #8 dribbles the ball during the match against Inter Miami at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Wednesday October 27, 2021. (Photo by Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United)

Credit: Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United

Atlanta United’s players were in good spirits near the end of Saturday’s training session, the last one before the team plays at NYCFC in the first round of the MLS playoffs Sunday at Yankee Stadium.

The Central and South American players once again won a competitive small-field game against players from the rest of the world. After that, some players competed in a knock-out shooting game. Ezequiel Barco won.

Atlanta United has reasons to be happy.

After a long season punctuated by the dismissal of one unpopular manager followed by the elevation of an interim manager and the hiring of another to take over full time, the team is in the playoffs, is almost completely healthy and is focused on what it believes it needs to do Sunday to survive and advance.

“We’ve been training very good,” manager Gonzalo Pineda said. “I think the intensity has been there. And today the mood was very good. We’re happy with what we see. But obviously, we need to be focused because tomorrow will be a very, very, very hard game.”

Pineda and his staff have worked during the past two weeks trying to slowly ramp up the concentration toward Sunday so that the players didn’t boil over too soon and have nothing left to give on what should be a cold day on the small pitch at Yankee Stadium.

Pineda and his staff pushed the players hard in the first few days of this week’s sessions while incorporating the tactical concepts they want executed. Once confident that the players know what is expected, the coaches relaxed and let the players be happy and free, Pineda said.

“We’re really excited for the game to get here,” Barco said. “I think we’ve had enough time to plan and prepare sufficiently for the game. So you know, we want to win and move on to the next round. That’s our goal.”

Barco and centerback Miles Robinson said a key for the team is to come out with intensity.

Both acknowledged that starting fast has been an issue for the team during the past few weeks. It has scored in the first half in only two of its past five games, and one of those goals was the gift to Luiz Araujo from Toronto goalkeeper Quintin Westberg.

“I think it’s just a matter of getting a few passes to connect and just taking a breath on the ball, when you have some time,” Robinson said. “It’s a tight pitch, so there’s not going to be much time on the ball. But if we can move the ball quick and win all duels in the midfield, I think we’re going to look good.”

Atlanta United anticipates that NYCFC is going to apply pressure early, especially because they are at home. They also anticipate there will be a lot of turnovers because of the number of duels with players so close to each other. The team has worked on defending in transition, relieving pressure by moving the ball, and counter-attacking.

Pineda said the players have shown in training that they understand the spaces in NYCFC’s defense that they think can be exploited.

But Pineda said the team doesn’t want to exclusively bunker and counter. He said that’s not the team’s personality or strength.

“The main part is trying again, to control the game, trying to play in the way we feel more comfortable,” he said. “But there is another team that likes probably the same style. And that’s the challenge. That’s always the beauty of this game is that both teams have a game plan and both teams try to perform at the highest level, and we will see what happens tomorrow.”

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Atlanta United’s playoff schedule

Nov. 21 at NYCFC, 3 p.m., ABC

Atlanta United’s 2021 MLS schedule

April 17 Atlanta United 0, Orlando 0

April 24 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 1

May 1 New England 2, Atlanta United 1

May 9 Atlanta United 1, Inter Miami 1

May 15 Atlanta United 1, Montreal 0

May 23 Atlanta United 1, Seattle 1

May 29 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2

June 20 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 2

June 23 NYCFC 1, Atlanta United 0

June 27 Atlanta United 0, New York Red Bulls 0

July 3 Chicago 3, Atlanta United 0

July 8 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2

July 17 New England 1, Atlanta United 0

July 21 Atlanta United 1, Cincinnati 1

July 24 Columbus 1, Atlanta United 0

July 30 Orlando 3, Atlanta United 2

Aug. 4 Atlanta United 2, Montreal 2

Aug. 7 Atlanta United 3, Columbus 2

Aug. 15 Atlanta United 1, LAFC 0

Aug. 18 Atlanta United 1, Toronto 0

Aug. 21 Atlanta United 2, D.C. United 1

Aug. 28 Nashville 2, Atlanta United 0

Sept. 10 Atlanta United 3, Orlando 0

Sept. 15 Atlanta United 4, Cincinnati 0

Sept. 18 Atlanta United 3, D.C. United 2

Sept. 25 Philadelphia 1, Atlanta United 0

Sept. 29 Atlanta United 1, Inter Miami 0

Oct. 2 Montreal 2, Atlanta United 1

Oct. 16 Atlanta United 2, Toronto 0

Oct. 20 Atlanta United 1, NYCFC 1

Oct. 27 Atlanta United 2, Miami 1

Oct. 30 Atlanta United 1, Toronto1

Nov. 3 Atlanta United 0, New York Red Bulls 0

Nov. 7 Atlanta United 2, Cincinnati 1

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