Atlanta United will test minimal changes in Champions League

Frank de Boer is 'very proud and eager to start' his tenure with Atlanta United. (Jason Getz/Special to the AJC)

Frank de Boer is 'very proud and eager to start' his tenure with Atlanta United. (Jason Getz/Special to the AJC)

Maybe Atlanta United will get pelted by corn cobs.

Or need an armored escort.

Or lose the internet.

Welcome to the Champions League.

Less than two weeks away from playing its first Champions League game, Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer thinks his team is trending in the right direction.

They are ready to try to overcome the challenges of new management, history and unfamiliar teams, stadiums and environments.

The team has won its first two preseason games featuring the first team by a combined score of 13-2. It will play another on Sunday at LAFC with its fourth scheduled for L.A. Galaxy on Feb. 13.

“Hopefully, those two games are coming up and we really can be at our top,” de Boer said.

The transition from previous manager Gerardo Martino to de Boer has been made easier by the fact that he hasn’t made too many tweaks.

In the first two scrimmages, the team played with three centerbacks and two wingbacks, which is what it used numerous games last season as well as in the run through the playoffs to the MLS Cup.

Captain Michael Parkhurst said the differences in styles are minimal. De Boer prefers the defense be set up with players behind the ball before the team presses.

“They’ve been relatively easy to pick up as far as playing a variation of system we played last year,” he said.

Last season, the press could come at a moment’s notice, no matter where Atlanta United’s players were. The tactic worked. The team scored 70 goals in each of its first two seasons, posted two of the greatest goal-differences in league history, produced a rookie of the year (Julian Gressel, 2017) and an MVP (Josef Martinez, 2018).

De Boer also prefers more of a zonal system then the man-to-man used by Martino.

“In the past there were so many moving parts and that was part of our success, kind of discombobulating the other team” Jeff Larentowicz said. “This is a bit different. Get guys behind the ball and once you are behind the ball then step out.”

Atlanta United needs to be ready because it is not only trying to overcome the challenges than naturally occur under a change in management, they are also battling history.

No MLS team has won the Champions League in its current format. Toronto made the finals last season but was beaten on penalties by Chivas. That marked the 10th consecutive year that a team from Mexico was champion. Just three MLS teams have advanced to the finals: Real Salt Lake (2010-11), Montreal (2014-15) and Toronto.

But, Atlanta United hasn’t cared too much about history.

“One of our goals, of course, is to be first American team to win the Champions League,” de Boer said. “That’s normal. That’s the ambition Atlanta United has.

“We made history last season. Just two years in MLS winning the MLS Cup is a great achievement. We want more. We have more ambition. We want to get that feeling back again.”

Playing in the Champions League is a much different experience than in MLS.

A journalist who covered a Champions League game in 2013 at Herediano in Costa Rica, which is where Atlanta United will play on Feb. 21, said he remembers the L.A. Galaxy scoring a goal and the wireless being turned off in the stadium so that the goal couldn’t be shared.

Larentowicz remembers his team being escorted by an armored truck to a stadium to play Real Espana in Honduras in 2011. Once there, someone in the stands threw a corn cob at him.

De Boer and his players acknowledge that winning that first game, which would set up Atlanta United very well for the return leg on Feb. 28, is going to be a challenge.

But, everyone feels like they are getting ready.

“In home stadium in front of home fans, against an American team, they are going to play the best game of their lives,” Parkhurst said. “Run like crazy. Hectic in the stadium. Refereeing will probably be influenced. Need to make sure we are mature and ready for that situation.

“It’s a challenge but this team has risen to challenges and hopefully we can do that in the next tournament.”