Historically frantic schedule stands between Atlanta and MLS' playoffs
The only comparison Atlanta United coach Tata Martino could find for his team’s upcoming schedule was the Copa America Centenario last summer.
Martino was coaching Argentina as it worked its way from the start of the group stage to the final – six games in 26 days. His Atlanta United team will play a couple more games in two fewer days starting Sunday. And it won’t have Lionel Messi.
Atlanta is about to begin a span of eight games in 24 days. It will be just the second time in the 22 MLS seasons a team goes through a stretch like this, and United players know there is no playbook for how to deal with the wacky schedule.
When thinking back on the Copa, Martino said the bright side is his team won’t have to travel nearly as much as Argentina last summer. But there also isn’t a clear example for Atlanta to follow as it heads into the gauntlet of games.
“We don’t have the formula, I wish we could know exactly how to balance results with rest,” Martino said in his native Spanish, with a slight chuckle. “In reality, what we have to do is concentrate on competing, doing well, resting and talking a lot, because it is  days that we will have little chance to do work on the field because it is necessary to prioritize recovery.”
Obstacles on the way to history
The expansion side has put itself in solid position to be the first team since the Seattle Sounders to make the playoffs in its inaugural season. It will have a much better idea by the start of October if that goal can be reached.
Only one team has faced a similarly brutal stretch like the one Atlanta will see in the coming weeks. The New England Revolution played eight games in 24 days in MLS’ inaugural season in 1996, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. It went 3-5, losing all five road games. Atlanta will play seven of the eight games at home, but the challenges it faces are similarly daunting.
As Martino alluded, with a game every three days, there will be limited opportunities for on-field practice and plenty of time spent in the training room. Tactics will be put aside in favor or rest and recovery.
“I don’t think there’s any way to prepare for it,” Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst told FourFourTwo USA. “Once the run starts, it’s just as much mental as it is physical, getting up for every game.
“The benefit is we don’t have to do much traveling. Most of the games are at home. We can recover, we can use the crowd to help us gain energy when we are lacking it, and obviously, we’re going to count on guys that haven’t played as many minutes.”
The difficulty of this stretch is compounded by the fact Atlanta will play all eight games on turf. United is switching home fields midseason, moving from natural grass to turf in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It closes out the eight-game stretch with a road game in New England, where a turf field awaits, as well.
On one hand, the quicker turf surface might eventually be an advantage for a front line built around youth and speed with Yamil Asad, Tito Villalba, Miguel Almirón and Josef Martínez. On the other, those four players aren’t overly-familiar with turf surfaces and will need some time to adapt. In addition, veterans like Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz know that playing on turf takes more out of a players’ legs.
Martino pointed out that his team has not struggled so far this season on turf – it is 1-1-2 in four games on the surface. He was also quick to point out that getting prepared for a one-off game on turf is far different from adjusting to the surface with so many games in a short amount of time.
“There’s no question [it makes it more difficult],” Larentowicz said. “Recovering after a game on turf is tougher than recovering after a game on grass. The demands on turf are much greater on your body, on your joints. We’re obviously not used to playing on turf, so we’re just going to have to see what comes.”
Testing the rest of the squad
Atlanta will likely be forced to lean on a rotation of sorts. Martino said his team has confidence in all of its non-regulars, and that he knows they will all have to play a role in the coming weeks. Parkhurst and Larentowicz said that while the starters want to play every minute, they know there will be games when others are called on to step into bigger roles.
The roster has veterans in place for these moments, with midfielders Chris McCann, Kevin Kratz and Jacob Peterson; defenders Tyrone Mears, Mark Bloom and Bobby Boswell; and forward Kenwyne Jones all available for selection.
“No doubt about it, guys that haven’t had a lot of starts are going to play some key minutes for us during this stretch,” Parkhurst said. “It’s imperative that these guys are ready for us, ready to contribute, able to contribute. And I think they will be.”
Added Larentowicz: “They all have an idea that they’re going to be used. When? They don’t know. But I think it’ll keep everyone on their toes. You can tell at training that people are thinking and thoughtful about what can happen in the next month.”
What can happen is Atlanta cementing a spot in a very competitive Eastern Conference playoff race.
With 10 games to play, Atlanta is currently sitting in a playoff position. Martino said that while he knows it’s difficult for an expansion team to reach that level, he believes his side could be in an even stronger position. Games against Philadelphia and D.C. United before the break dropped below the expected level, he said, and Atlanta must re-find the form it showed earlier this year in order to stay above the red line.
Larentowicz said the rhythms of the season have made it difficult for Atlanta to keep its good form rolling. It won’t have that problem in the next few weeks. There is definitely an opportunity to get momentum going.
“The situation is what we would have wanted when the season started,” Martino said. “The future is in our hands. We have 10 games ahead of us, eight of which are at home, if we play well in the new stadium, then qualifying for the playoffs will depend only on what we do.”
It’s a position of which the team is well aware. And if United can navigate the pitfalls of so many games and such little rest, it could be the latest team to make MLS history.