United righting ship for playoff push

United huddles following a goal during their 4-0 win over FC Cincinnati. Atlanta has won seven of eight through their win over DC United on Sept. 18. // Photo courtesy of Dale Zanine USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United furthered their playoff push after a 3-0 win over second place Orlando two weeks ago, in head coach Gonzalo Pineda’s first win as United’s manager. United came into the game missing two of their star players Josef Martinez and Miles Robinson, who could not play after returning from playing for their national teams during World Cup Qualifying.

Their combined absence did not seem to faze the team, who started off the game playing aggressively and recent acquisition Luiz Araujo nearly scoring from outside Orlando’s penalty box.

The aggressiveness would continue throughout the entire evening, with George Cambell getting his first MLS goal in the 25th minute, only to be followed by Marcelino Moreno with a goal of his own just 13 minutes later. Between these and the third goal were multiple close calls, with Ezequiel Barco and Moreno coming close with missed shots. Barco’s goal finally came a little over 70 minutes in, after maneuvering around multiple defenders on his way to the game’s final score.

If anything, the Orlando match not only showed how much depth United has going into the homestretch, but that they can get by quality opponents without playing at full strength.

Four days later, last-place Cincinnati came to town, and the Five Stripes took care of business as championship-hopeful level teams should.

Following near miss after near miss in recent matches, Araujo finally put one in goal on a screaming run down the right side as if someone was holding the sprint button playing FIFA, finishing with a beautiful left foot curler in the fifth minute.

Martinez’s goals in the 40th and 55th minute all but put away the game at 3-0. Barco plugged a free kick past Tyton in the 86th for the 4-0 win.

This past Saturday saw Atlanta take on their next opponent- D.C. United. The 3-2 win moved the team into fourth for playoff contention. The first goal of the game came from Barco, who notched his seventh goal of the season in the 18th minute on another free kick. After he hit that free kick, the game opened up much more.

Josef Martinez also secured a goal, followed by Moreno, who drove down the field himself, maneuvering around multiple defenders in the play of the day.

The win gives the momentum-gaining United a small advantage in the very competitive Eastern Conference. United has won their last three games with a 10-2 total margin, a string of performances that has pushed them into the number four spot in the Eastern Conference, which would guarantee them one home playoff match. The same team which lost two 2-0 leads this season, one to Philadelphia and the other to Nashville, both at home, has completely turned into a team that can keep up pressure all game.

One of the main stories of the turnaround lies in a change of performance by Barco since the Tokyo Olympics. After scoring a goal of his own in the 18th minute, he set up Martinez’s 99th United goal with an assist. After struggling his first few seasons on United behaviorally, his transformation into a key asset this year has been a sight welcomed by fans and other players alike. His performance against D.C. was enough to earn him the Man of the Match award, earning him recognition for his recent strong play.

Head coach Gonzalo Pineda has received much acclaim for the success of the team after his takeover. The training is not as rigorous as Heinze’s program. He has made sure players on international duty get their rest before playing for United. What is clear is that he trusts this squad, which can be the kind of confidence boost Atlanta needs.

There is a lot on the line as United approaches the last month of regular season play. It is entirely possible for United to end the season having secured a playoff berth, though it is also possible for the season to end with a disappointing playoff miss. Either way, the arrival of Araujo and success of Gonzalo Pineda hint at a bright future for the young team.