Atlanta United welcomes Toronto FC on Wednesday
night with a lot at stake in the Eastern Conference final.
If they win, the Five Stripes will host the MLS Cup for the second year in a row. Seattle's 3-1 win at Supporters' Shield winner LAFC left Atlanta United as the top seed left in the playoffs and first in line to host the MLS championship game.
On top of its Campeones Cup and U.S. Open Cup trophies, a trip to MLS Cup would cap a remarkable third season for Atlanta United that began in controversy when it got off to a slow start under new head coach Frank de Boer.
The change in style was a big adjustment after Tata Martino left following the 2018 season to coach Mexico. Atlanta United was in last place in the Eastern Conference after six games with a 1-3-2 record and knocked out of the Concacaf Champions League in the quarterfinals.
“I knew that it’s always difficult coming to a new culture,” De Boer told reporters ahead of the Toronto FC match. “They have to know you, I have to know the players themselves. So it always takes time. You cannot expect somebody to change in only the preseason or four weeks, four-and-a-half weeks, then start Concacaf directly into the competition. That you think everything is going to be easy and you’re going to win your games. No, it’s not like that."
There were still some doubts about Atlanta United at the MLS All-Star Game break. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez expressed support for de Boer but admitted there were challenges. The Argentine defender said the new defense-first approach was "very distinct to the way we played last year, and we’re not pleased with that." Barco termed it a work in progress.
The turning point came in August when Atlanta United won the Campeones Cup against Club America and Open Cup against Minnesota United two weeks apart.
“I always say after six months, you can normally see the hand of the manager, what he wants," said de Boer. "I think if you won two titles and still involved in the most precious title, you can be satisfied. Again, I want to win everything.”
De Boer didn't get his six months in his last two jobs, lasting just 14 games at Inter Milan and four at Crystal Palace before being fired. He is appreciative of having gotten time to institute his ideas at Atlanta United.
“You don’t feel the stress that they are really trying to press you, that you have to get good results," he said. "It’s a compliment for Darren Eales, Carlos Bocanegra and also Arthur Blank, of course, because we had a rough start.”