The Major League Soccer playoffs are a different kind of soccer than the regular season. Referees let more physical play go, and teams tend to play more defensively and less wide open than in the regular season. Teams that can adapt to that change tend to do better, with the exceptions being those rare sides with just so much attacking talent that their wide-open style of play can continue to thrive.
Gerardo "Tata" Martino is banking on Atlanta United being one of those teams, and has no intention of changing a thing for the playoffs. The expansion team has featured a high-flying attack whose success is predicated on being able to overwhelm opponents before they can punish Atlanta's inevitable defensive vulnerabilities as the club sends numbers forward.
As competition gets progressively tougher, defenses more disciplined and referees more forgiving, will Atlanta's approach work in the playoffs?
"What has brought us to this point is playing a certain way, so I don't think we're going to have to change for the playoffs," Martino said.
Asked if he thought his team would have to alter its approach in the postseason Martino replied, "I hope not."
Martino can take heart in having watched the New York Red Bulls stick to their aggressive attacking style built around high pressing opponents in Wednesday's 4-0 rout of the Chicago Fire. Atlanta doesn't play exactly the same style as the Red Bulls, and certainly not the same system — Atlanta prefers a 4-2-3-1 while the Red Bulls operate out of essentially a 5-4-1 — but United does play in a similar way to the 2015 and 2016 Red Bulls, years when New York enjoyed regular season success but playoff disappointment.
Martino might want to take a page from the Red Bulls, who adjusted their approach this year after those past playoff failures.
"It'll be interesting because we played very similarly [to Atlanta] and we hadn't changed much going into the playoffs, and we haven't had success the past two years [in the playoffs]," Red Bulls midfielder Sacha Kljestan told Goal. "We've altered things a little bit this year, trying to wait for the press instead of pressing every single time we lose the ball, or every time they build out of the back.
"They've got a very good style and they've been very successful," Kljestan said of Atlanta. "I don't expect them to change."
Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst knows about MLS playoff soccer better than anybody else on his team's roster, and he sees defensive discipline being the key to the Five Stripes having continued success in the playoffs with their attacking style.
"We're going to play out of the back, and play our game, but we have to be smart about our shape," Parkhurst told Goal. "That doesn't mean changing our philosophy, but in the playoffs you get punished for mistakes, so we need to avoid mistakes and I think our style will be just fine in the playoffs."
The path through the MLS playoffs won't be an easy one for Atlanta. Up first is a visit from the red-hot Columbus Crew on Thursday, in a matchup that will be sure to test the United defense and the wide-open style that could leave gaps for the Crew's dangerous wingers to exploit. If Martino's men can beat the Crew, a matchup against New York City FC, another team well suited to punish Atlanta's aggressiveness, will await.
That's a tough set of matchups for Atlanta. It will require not only an effective attack but a defense that cuts out the mistakes it had a penchant for during the regular season. Martino is banking on his team being able to succeed playing the same way that led to some of the most attractive soccer played in MLS in 2017, and we will find out soon enough whether that approach was a wise one.