Major League Soccer

MLS Cup Playoffs preview: Atlanta United

Chris Smith
Atlanta United are back in the Playoffs.
Atlanta United are back in the Playoffs. /

After a year in the wilderness, Atlanta United are back in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

The Five Stripes are armed with one of the most fierce forward lines in Major League Soccer and will certainly be a threat.

So here's everything you need to know about Atlanta United ahead of the post-season - from tactics to key players, and their chances of winning the big prize.

How did Atlanta United make it to the MLS Cup Playoffs?

Despite some early promise, things fell apart at an alarmingly fast pace for former boss Gabriel Heinze. By the time he was removed from the dugout in mid-July, the Five Stripes had won just two of their 13 MLS games, with rumors of discontent among the playing squad rife.

Enter Rob Valentino and Gonzalo Pineda. The former as interim and the latter as Heinze's eventual replacement, they have worked wonders to turn things around. In 21 combined matches under the two coaches, Atlanta United have taken 38 points at a rate of 1.81 per game, compared to just one point per game under Heinze.

Though their games have been tight, Atlanta lost just three of their last 18 regular-season matches to get over the Playoff line relatively comfortably in the end, finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference. They even had the chance to host their Round One game, but other results went against Atlanta as they beat FC Cincinnati 2-1 on Decision Day. So a trip to NYCFC awaits.

Gonzalo Pineda: Tactics and style of play

Gonzalo Pineda is already popular among Atlanta United supporters.
Gonzalo Pineda is already popular among Atlanta United supporters. / Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

It may come as a surprise, but Pineda isn't actually a million miles away from Heinze in a tactical sense. The Mexican's game is predicated on dominating possession with a slightly heightened focus on hitting teams in transition when he can. What sets Pineda apart is his superior man-management and far more pleasant manner.

Pineda has almost exclusively stuck to variants of the 3-4-3, 3-5-2, and 3-4-2-1 systems in Atlanta. Three center-backs provide a solid platform on both sides of the ball, allowing the wing-backs to get forward and provide width. Santiago Sosa holds down the fort at the base of midfield, allowing his partner to roam, while the likes of Marcelino Moreno, Ezequiel Barco, and Luiz Araujo move fluidly behind Josef Martinez.

Who are Atlanta United's key players?

Josef Martinez: Nobody quite knew what a year out with an ACL injury would do to one of the most lethal strikers in MLS history. Martinez himself even admitted he nearly gave up playing completely. But Josef is back and he means business. The Venezuelan's remarkable volley on Decision Day was his 12th goal in just 24 MLS appearances this season and he is without a doubt the talisman for this team. If Josef is on it, Atlanta United can go all the way.

Miles Robinson: The Five Stripes are stacked up top, but they're only able to get to work because Miles Robinson is so effective at the back. The United States international is probably the best center-back in MLS - he's certainly the best in one-on-one situations. This might well be Robinson's last season with Atlanta, and he'll be determined to end on a high.

Ezequiel Barco: Like Robinson, this could be Ezequiel Barco's last run in MLS. The Argentine has finally started cashing in on that immense potential this season, notching six goals and six assists since returning from the Olympics in the summer. Barco is the Swiss Army knife of the Atlanta attack; if he doesn't dribble past you, he'll cut you open with a precision pass and, failing all else, he'll just fire one home from 25 yards himself. Most importantly, this will be Barco's final shop window to earn that move to Europe.

How far can Atlanta United go in the MLS Cup Playoffs?

Atlanta United are strong contenders
Atlanta United are strong contenders / Matthew Burt

Atlanta United's habit of giving up late goals and switching off is the reason they're not hosting in Round One and, ultimately, that might end up biting them in the Playoffs. But they'll take heart in the fact they should have beaten NYCFC just a few weeks ago, eventually drawing at the death.

Don't bet against them edging out what could be a real punch-up against New York, before eventually falling short away at the New England Revolution.

Prediction: Conference semi-finals