Atlanta United players rush the field to celebrate as time expires in a 2-1 victory over Minnesota United to win the U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday, August 27, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

No time for Atlanta United hangover, first place is on the line

When Atlanta United last played Philadelphia, it was recovering from the metaphorical hangover of just four days earlier having been eliminated from the CONCACAF Champions League. The teams drew 1-1.

When Atlanta United plays at Philadelphia on Saturday, it will be recovering from the presumed hangovers of just four days earlier from celebrating winning the U.S. Open Cup. It’s one of two trophies the team has won this season that looks much more promising than when the two teams last met on March 17 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“The confidence level wasn’t the same with all the changes, getting used to a new coaching staff,” defender Franco Escobar said. “But I think now we are better adjusted. You can see we are playing well and in good form. Philadelphia is a good team and playing well also. It should be a good game. We are a different team now.”

There’s not a trophy on the line in this game, but it could impact who will hold a trophy at the end of the season. Both teams are tied atop the MLS Eastern Conference with 48 points. Atlanta United is in first because it holds the edge in the first tiebreaker, wins (15-14). The team that finishes in first in the East and West Conference will receive byes in the first round of the playoffs in this year’s revamped playoff structure.

So, because of the points, tie-breaker and ramifications for playoffs, Saturday’s result feels like a six-point game, according to manager Frank de Boer.  He said his players will be over the Wednesday morning celebrations and ready for Saturday.

“We have to,” he said. “It's a very important game. We're fighting for the first spot. At the end of the regular season, you want to be on top because we will play one game less. I think it's important and also it's better that you play at home in that moment. It's a very important game for both of us.”

Philadelphia has hung around first place in the East for much of the season. It is a team that is loaded with talented players such as goalkeeper Andre Blake, striker Kacper Przybylko, who leads with 12 goals, and midfielders Haris Medunjanin (team-leading nine assists), Marco Fabian (six goals) and Isinho (five goals and seven assists). 

Jim Curtin’s team can sit back and counter-attack or it can press.

“They have a quality squad,” de Boer said. “They have different weapons in the team. They are comfortable on the ball, but also the speed up front. I think they are quite solid team with good quality players, different players.”

Atlanta United’s transformation is thought to have began with the switch to a 3-5-2 formation against Houston that led to a 5-0 win on July 17. Since that change, the team won five of six in the league and nine of 10 overall to rocket up the table.

In fact, the team started to improve in that Philadelphia game. De Boer had run a 3-4-3 system in the first games, including in the Champions League, that was producing mostly dull soccer. The team was having trouble breaking down opponents. 

Against the Union, he scrapped that formation, still using three men in the back but using a diamond formation in the midfield instead of wingbacks. It wasn’t working, either, but the fact that de Boer made the change showed that he wanted results more than he wanted to use his preferred formation.

Because that formation wasn’t working, de Boer went to a 4-4-1-1 during the game. The team eventually got the tying goal, which came from Ezequiel Barco, to earn the 1-1 draw. But Barco’s header was the team’s second and last shot on goal despite having more than 70 percent possession in the game.

Atlanta United lost its next game 2-0 at Columbus in a rain storm. But, with its 4-4-1-1 formation, the team won six of its next seven. It continued with the formation until the change at Houston, which again sparked new life, two more trophies, Wednesday morning’s fun and Saturday’s stage.

“If we want to be known as a top team, top teams are winning titles and then the next day performing again,” de Boer said. “We have to show that we are a top team, a top club. So that will be my main talk to my players. We want more. We are more hungry. That means that we have to show our quality against Philly.”

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