Atlanta United couldn't have picked a better time to win back-to-back games for the first time this season.
The Five Stripes went down to Orlando City on Wednesday five points adrift of the MLS Cup Playoffs places with just four regular-season games remaining. The margin for error was non-existent, only a win would do.
Thankfully, Atlanta carried the confidence of their dramatic 4-2 win over Toronto FC at the weekend into this match at Exploria Stadium and after a goalless, nervous 72 minutes, Thiago Almada finally stepped up with yet another excellent goal.
1-0. A first away win since early April. Just a second away win of the season. A first win at Exploria Stadium since August 2019. Back-to-back wins for the first time this season.
"Perfect timing," head coach Gonzalo Pineda said after Wednesday's match. "I think it’s very good, I mean, more than those stats of second victory, second victory on the road. It’s the timing of it, it puts us in a very good position to fight for a playoff spot. We need to continue. Nothing is done yet but the spirits and the passion the players are putting on the field is very good."
Orlando had their moments and Atlanta had to ride out some serious pressure from the hosts, especially after taking the lead. But it still felt like a game where the Five Stripes were moments away from scoring.
Indeed, Luiz Araujo and Andrew Gutman missed the best chances of the first half and Almada's goal came at a point where Atlanta United were growing in confidence and just needed the finishing touch.
"This is why they brought me here, to be decisive," said Almada, who recently received a call-up to the Argentina national team.
On the feeling among the players after these back-to-back wins, he added: "I think the team is playing better and understanding each other better. These two wins give us confidence."
Of course, as Pineda says, 'nothing is done yet'. Atlanta United remain two points behind the Columbus Crew in seventh and have played one game more than the teams directly above them.
However, their toughest remaining game against the Philadelphia Union comes at home, while the Five Stripes end the regular season with clashes against out-of-form sides New England Revolution and NYCFC.
Everything is there to play for.
"Obviously, after winning two games in a row we’re building confidence as a team that is evolving," said right-back Ronald Hernandez. "But we need to stay humble, keep our feet on the ground, and go step by step.
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