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Keys for Atlanta United to advance in MLS tournament

Atlanta United defender Miles Robison battles a ball in the mid field against Los Angeles FC  Latif Blessing during the first half.
Atlanta United defender Miles Robison battles a ball in the mid field against Los Angeles FC Latif Blessing during the first half.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

It will be 126 days since Atlanta United last played an MLS game when it takes on New York Red Bulls on Saturday in Orlando in its first game in the league’s tournament.

While the world has battled a pandemic and more, Atlanta United has been:

Working on figuring out how to play without Josef Martinez;

Getting healthier;

Waiting, like the rest of us, to find out what’s next.

The answers won’t be known until the team starts playing.

Here are keys for Atlanta United to advance past Red Bulls, Cincinnati on July 16 and Columbus on July 21 and into the knockout rounds:

Win the first game. De Boer said getting three points on Saturday would likely provide an emotional lift, a bit of confidence.

“It puts off a little bit of the pressure,” he said. “With three points, you can lose a game and with the next game three points you can get through to the next round.”

Centerback Fernando Meza said something similar.

“When you win, you are in a more positive mental state,” he said. “That will be a big help as we are going through this tournament.”

Of course, should Atlanta United not win it doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to be heading to Atlanta earlier than they want.

De Boer pointed out that Holland lost its first game in the European championships 1-0 to the Soviet Union in 1988 and rebounded to win the tournament with a 2-0 victory over the Soviets.

Handle the heat. Though the game will kick after 8 p.m., temperatures will still be in the high 80s with stifling humidity. Even when the teams plays at 9 a.m. against Cincinnati it will likely be 20 degrees more than it would be in the comfy confines of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

De Boer said he plans to use all five subs and has hinted that the players must be judicious when choosing when to press in order to conserve energy.

“We know what we want technically but physically can they do it for 90 minutes? With weather, humidity and heat,” he said.

Miles Robinson said the team isn’t doing much differently nutritionally to try to deal with the conditions but are using salt tablets in their gatorade and making sure to stay hydrated.

Solid at the back. Robinson, a centerback who finished top five in Defender of the Year voting last season, hasn't played 90 minutes since Oct. 6 last year. He suffered a hamstring strain while with the U.S. men's national team that ended his Atlanta United season early. He returned for training camp and sustained a quad strain in a preseason exhibition game against a second division side from Mexico that prevented him from playing in the team's two league games or its three Champions League games.

“It’s crazy,” he said.

But he and centerback Fernando Meza are forming a good partnership in training.

Pity Martinez said Meza’s cerebral approach compliments Robinson’s physical approach. If that sounds a bit like what the team had with Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez you wouldn’t be wrong.

“Playing with Miles is very easy,” Meza said. “We talk a lot and have a good relationship. He brings dynamics we want to the team.”

It remains to be seen if de Boer will play three at the back, which would mean three centerbacks, or four at the back, which would mean two centerbacks. Either way, Robinson and Meza will likely start.

Be aggressive. Be be aggressive. A key to defeating Red Bulls is to match their aggressiveness. They will press. They will play balls behind the last line. They will push the ball to the strikers and the two wingers will cut inside with quality.

Atlanta United must win the first and second balls.

“They don’t give you any time normally when you have the ball,” de Boer said. “You are always getting into a challenge. If we start sloppy you can be punished by these types of teams.

“But If we win it we have a lot of possibilities to really punish them. It will be an interesting game, that’s for sure.”

Find a scorer(s). Josef Martinez is out for the season. If Atlanta United scored a goal, he was the likely man. He scored 27 of the team's 58 goals last season.

It seems likely that if Atlanta United can make up for his absence it will be done by committee. Ezequiel Barco and Emerson Hyndman lead the team with two goals each. Pity Martinez has two assists and was in form before the season was suspended. Manuel Castro, Matheus Rossetto and Adam Jahn are also candidates.

Much may depend upon the formation selected by de Boer. The team played a 3-4-2-1 early in the season. De Boer said the team has used its training time to be able to fluidly switch between formations depending upon the situation. They have also worked on a “false nine” formation in which there is no traditional striker.