Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan stops his interviewer as soon as he hears the phrase “season-defining stretch” used to describe the team’s coming trek of eight games in 28 days, starting Sunday at Sporting KC.
“I wouldn’t say that,” he said.
“Carry on,” he instructs his interviewer.
Guzan wouldn’t even agree that it’s a season-affecting stretch.
But here are the facts: Atlanta United has accumulated eight points from seven games. It trails NYCFC for the seventh and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference by four points with two games in hand. It trails first place Philadelphia by nine points while playing three fewer games.
If Atlanta United can play well during this stretch, which includes home games against Toronto (13 points in the Eastern Conference), Orlando (12), Minnesota (14 in the Western Conference) and Chicago (9 in the East), and road games against Vancouver (6 in the West), New York Red Bulls (8 in the East) and Real Salt Lake (10 in the West), it should quickly climb the table, putting to rest questions about its playing style under manager Frank de Boer, and strengthen its argument that it can defend its MLS Cup.
But, of course, the only game that matters is the next one.
“By no means it is a season-defining stretch,” Guzan said. “We know it’s important. Win or lose, it doesn’t mean anything in terms of us making the playoffs after the eight games. The season isn’t over.”
If Atlanta United doesn’t play well, the steep climb to qualifying for the playoffs will become more difficult.
Atlanta United has several advantages, though.
The first is, as of Friday, most of the players are healthy. The team will play without fullback George Bello, who is set to undergo surgery for a torn adductor. After Sunday’s game it also won’t have Ezequiel Barco, who was called up by Argentina for the Under-20 World Cup. Having a deep squad that de Boer can rotate should he choose will be a key to surviving the stretch before the schedule thins in June.
The second is the team has experience cramming a lot of soccer into so few dates.
Its first season, it played eight games in 24 days from September until early October. It went 5-1-2, moving from starting with being tied for sixth and the final spot in the playoffs up to third place in the East, which underscores how playing well when the games are almost non-stop can affect a season.
Atlanta United started this season playing seven games in 25 days.
“We are better prepared because we have some games at our backs,” de Boer said. “I think it’s an advantage for us that we get this stretch of a lot of games.”
The team went 2-3-2 during the stretch, and de Boer said the players are more comfortable now than they were then.
“I think everybody understands more…what we expect from everyone in their roles and position,” he said. “If we swap, they know what to do. It won’t be an issue, I think.”
That’s good because there won’t be a lot of time between games to make adjustments. One of de Boer’s observations during the first tough stretch was there wasn’t time between games to make a lot of tactical changes. Games were followed by rest and recovery followed by scouting the opponent and then light training and then another game.
“Sleep, rest, travel and play games,” de Boer said. “This is how it’s going to be the next month.”
The third is, as Guzan and Eric Remedi noted, the season still won’t have reached its halfway point when the stretch of games is complete. After the eight-game block ends against Chicago at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on June 1, the schedule will resume with a game at Toronto on June 26 as the first of the remaining 19 games.
“I don’t think it defines anything,” Remedi said of the eight games. “Even after the stretch, we won’t have reached the midpoint of the season. Hopefully we can take as many points from the eight games as we can.”
There are plenty of examples of teams that didn’t play well at the beginning of the season, but figured things out in the second half and played well.
Each of the past two seasons Seattle has stumbled early and recovered enough points in the season’s second half to play for the MLS Cup in 2017 and make the playoffs in 2018.
So, while eight games equals 24 points, don’t tell Guzan anything more than who is next for Atlanta United.
“We know that Sporting KC is first on the list and we have to get off to a good start, not only for this game but in terms of the games that are going to follow behind it,” he said. “It’s a chance to pick up a lot of points rather quickly.”
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