Atlanta heads into MLS playoffs looking to defend its Cup

PAUL NEWBERRY (AP Sports Writer)
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FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2019, file photo, Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez (7) and FC Cincinnati defender Andrew Gutman (96) vie for the ball in the first half of an MLS soccer match, in Cincinnati. Atlanta United, the defending MLS Cup champions, are heading into the playoffs from essentially the same position as last season.(AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) -- It's been a strange season for Atlanta United.

They've added more two more cups to their collection.

They've endured some rather baffling losses.

After all that, the defending MLS Cup champions are heading into the postseason from essentially the same position as last season.

Atlanta, which was runner-up in the Eastern Conference, will host the New England Revolution on Saturday in the opening round of the playoffs, a rematch of their Oct. 6 game to close out the regular season.

''We've put ourselves in a pretty decent spot, as strange as the season has maybe been,'' midfielder Julian Gressel said Wednesday after a training session. ''We've already won two trophies, and now we have a chance for a third.''

In mid-August, United broke out the champagne after a 3-2 victory over Mexican powerhouse Club America to capture the Campeones Cup.

A couple of weeks later, they were celebrating again with a 2-1 victory over Minnesota United in the U.S. Open Cup final, guaranteeing a spot in next year's CONCACAF Champions League.

''I felt like we were always there and pretty much at our best in those games,'' Gressel said. ''That's why I'm pretty confident we'll be at our best when it really matters.''

But there are reasons to be concerned. Atlanta struggled badly in some league games - especially on the road - and rarely looked like the dynamic team that won the MLS Cup in just its second year under former coach Tata Martino.

With Frank de Boer now at the helm, United got off to a sluggish start and spent much of the season juggling lineups and switching up tactics in a desperate bid to find some consistency. Atlanta never put together an unbeaten streak longer than five games - it had three such stretches a year ago - and finished with 58 points, 58 goals and a plus-15 goal differential. All were short of the 69 points, 70 goals and plus-26 differential from the 2018 season.

Still, United's second-place showing in the East behind New York City FC matches last year's finish, guaranteeing the team at least one home game in the playoffs and another in the conference semifinals should it beat the Revolution.

That's a crucial edge for a franchise that has essentially broken every MLS attendance record and again averaged more than 52,000 per game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, doubling up every team in the league except Seattle and Cincinnati. In 17 home games, Atlanta lost only twice.

While United closed out the season with a 3-1 victory over New England, the Revolution has been one of the league's hottest teams over the second half of the season.

Atlanta will be further tested by the possible absence of its best defender, Miles Robinson, who is dealing with a strained left hamstring sustained during a workout with the U.S. national team last week.

If Robinson can't go, United will have to change up their lineup once again and possibly adopt a more defensive approach to Saturday's game.

''If I do push up, it's more so getting back a little faster than I normally would, things like that,'' said midfielder Darlington Nagbe, one of those who may be affected if Robinson can't go. ''Just feel the game out and see how it plays out.''

In the regular-season finale, Ezequiel Barco got the start over Pity Martinez, a lineup that de Boer might go with again in the playoffs.

Barco played only 15 league games this season because of injuries and a lengthy stint with Argentina at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, but he provided the sort of spark de Boer was looking for against New England. Martinez, who was the 2018 South American player of the year and Atlanta's major acquisition during the last offseason, has struggled to find his nice in MLS with just five goals in 32 appearances.

''We have to see,'' de Boer said. ''The only thing that concerns me is to win the playoffs.''

MLS switched up the playoff format this season. Instead of the top two teams from both the East and the West receiving byes and two-legged rounds to determine the winner of conference semifinals and finals, only the first-place finisher gets the opening round off and every step of the playoffs is a single-game elimination.

There is no room for error.

''If you have an off day, you might be out,'' Gressel said. ''I feel like it's a format that favors the underdog a bit more, or gives the underdog a bit more hope.''

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