Plug and play working for Atlanta United’s defense

October 24, 2019 Atlanta: Atlanta United player Mikey Ambrose and Philadelphia player Alejandro Bedoya battle for a header in the Eastern Conference semifinals of the MLS playoffs on Thursday, October 24, 2019, in Atlanta.   Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
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October 24, 2019 Atlanta: Atlanta United player Mikey Ambrose and Philadelphia player Alejandro Bedoya battle for a header in the Eastern Conference semifinals of the MLS playoffs on Thursday, October 24, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Out went Miles Robinson. In came Michael Parkhurst.

Out went Parkhust. In came Flo Pogba and Mikey Ambrose.

It doesn’t seem to matter who plugs and plays for Atlanta United, the defense keeps shutting out opponents -- first New England and then Philadelphia -- in the MLS playoffs. The next attempt will be Toronto on Wednesday in the Eastern Conference finals at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta United has six shutouts in eight playoff games in its history.

“We said it after the last game someone’s going to have to step in and step up,” defensive midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said. “Mikey and (Pogba) were great today.”

Pogba started as the left centerback and Ambrose as the left fullback in a four-man back line that included Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Franco Escobar on the right. It was Pogba’s first start in almost a month. It was Ambrose’s first start in more than four months.

Ambrose was tasked with slowing the crafty Alejandro Bedoya and Pogba with the speedy Fafa Picault. Bedoya finished with three shots, none on target, and no chances created. Picault had two shots, one on goal, and no chances created.

“I think it speaks volumes about our squad, our depth, and guys stepping up when their name and number is called and grasping the opportunity to go out onto the field and do the job for us,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “I thought (Ambrose) was really good. I thought (Pogba) was really good.”

De Boer said because of the 4-3-3 formation he selected, Ambrose was the only option at left fullback to be the defensive presence behind Ezequiel Barco. De Boer said selecting Justin Meram, who like Barco is offensive-minded, would have been “almost suicide.” Meram had started or appeared as a sub in the 13 previous games.

“He has done well in the USL, and that’s good that he played the games in the USL,” de Boer said of Ambrose. “We gave him his minutes, and that’s why I had no doubt tonight. In training, he’s always giving 100 percent. That’s always the message I give to our players. Your time can suddenly come. If you show me in training that you give your best and you show quality, then for me, it’s a possibility that I put you in. He gave me that opportunity.”

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October 24, 2019 Atlanta - Atlanta United midfielder Darlington Nagbe (6) and Philadelphia Union forward Fafa Picault (9) collide on a header in the second half during Eastern Conference semifinals of MLS playoffs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday, October 24, 2019. Atlanta United won 2-0 over the Philadelphia Union. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

October 24, 2019 Atlanta - Atlanta United midfielder Darlington Nagbe (6) and Philadelphia Union forward Fafa Picault (9) collide on a header in the second half during Eastern Conference semifinals of MLS playoffs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday, October 24, 2019. Atlanta United won 2-0 over the Philadelphia Union. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
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October 24, 2019 Atlanta - Atlanta United midfielder Darlington Nagbe (6) and Philadelphia Union forward Fafa Picault (9) collide on a header in the second half during Eastern Conference semifinals of MLS playoffs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday, October 24, 2019. Atlanta United won 2-0 over the Philadelphia Union. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

De Boer also praised Larentowicz, who has surprisingly made the starting 11 the past four games. Atlanta United has allowed only two goals in those games. The first of the four starts, against Montreal in the next-to-last game of the regular season, was Larentowicz’s first in four games. He wasn’t used in any of those four games. He has said there were times this season that it seemed he was buried on the bench.

Now, de Boer said Larentowicz is providing a balance in the midfield, particularly with his ability to win duels. Larentowicz has won 19 of a possible 35 in the past four games.

“It’s crucial,” de Boer said. “It’s a difference between attacking or defending. If you win 80 percent of your battles, well then eight out of 10 times, you are attacking instead of defending. For the opponent, it’s mentally deflating. It’s so important to have that feeling because you are winning every duel. Jeff and Darlington (Nagbe) are such a big part of that. Today, both of them had fantastic recoveries. That’s why I put Jeff there and didn’t want to put him in the back line. In football, most games are won in the midfield. He’s a key player in our midfield.”