Atlanta United’s up-and-down season comes down to Sunday

August 28, 2021 Atlanta - Atlanta United's defender Miles Robinson (12) heads the ball during the second half in a MLS soccer match at at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, August 28, 2021. Nashville SC won 2-0 over Atlanta United. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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August 28, 2021 Atlanta - Atlanta United's defender Miles Robinson (12) heads the ball during the second half in a MLS soccer match at at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, August 28, 2021. Nashville SC won 2-0 over Atlanta United. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Atlanta United has a chance Sunday to accomplish something few thought possible during its doldrums in June and July: make the MLS playoffs.

With a draw Sunday at Cincinnati, the worst team in the league for the third consecutive year, Atlanta United will clinch a playoff spot for the fourth time in five seasons. With a win, combined with a NYCFC loss to Philadelphia, and Orlando loss or draw to Montreal, the Five Stripes can clinch the fourth seed and will get to host a playoff game in the first round.

“It’s been a long season filled with ups and downs, but I think we’re definitely focused on this next opponent, and, hopefully, the playoffs and we’re definitely going to grind these next few weeks,” centerback Miles Robinson said.

Robinson, always understated, is underselling the “ups and downs.”

For the second consecutive season, the team elected to fire its manager mid-season. Gabriel Heinze, hired amid great fanfare in December 2019, was let go in July with the team stuck in an eight-game winless streak, and having scored only 13 goals in 13 games, while its carefully constructed brand and culture seemed to be deteriorating amid losses, dull play partially because of a manager who didn’t seem to care about anything other than constant training and games.

Assistant Rob Valentino was promoted. Fun no longer was a bad thing. The team went 4-2-1 in its next seven games and scored 12 goals to climb back into the playoff scenarios.

Valentino was replaced by Gonzalo Pineda, who, after losing his first game, has led the team to an record of 6-3-3 with a goal differential of plus-8. Everyone seems to be more relaxed.

Now, the team just needs to complete its turnaround with a positive performance Sunday.

“We’re Atlanta, so we know we have an obligation to be in the playoffs,” midfielder Franco Ibarra said. “It is tough when you know guys are missing for injuries. But our goal is to get into the playoffs and to go as far as we can. And we have to keep working toward that.”

Pineda said the players were in a good mood after Saturday’s spirited training session. He stressed for the second time, after doing so following Wednesday’s 0-0 draw at Red Bulls, that the team can’t overlook Cincinnati. He said its players will be competing for pride and possibly contracts.

“We need to make sure that we’re on the front foot,” Pineda said. “But having in our minds, yes, we want to try to push for that home playoff game.”

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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 at Cincinnati, 3:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE