Flexibility key for Atlanta United and Philadelphia Union

Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez makes a bicycle kick between Philadelphia Union defenders Auston Trusty and Jack Elliott that was blocked by goalkeeper Andre Blake. Curtis Compton/

Atlanta United will get a third chance this season to defeat Philadelphia for the first time when the teams meet in the semifinals of the MLS Eastern Conference playoffs on Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Atlanta United wasn't at its best the previous two meetings. The first came four days after Atlanta United was eliminated from the Champions League. The teams drew 1-1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but there were two important moments in the game that may have bearing on Thursday's meeting. The second meeting between the two was Atlanta United's eighth game in the month of August, a period in which the team had just won two trophies. Philadelphia used two late goals to win 3-1.

Jeff Larentowicz doesn’t care about the whys of the results.

“I think you’re making excuses for us,” he said. “You’ve got to win the game. That’s it. You’ve got to expect Philly to give you everything, no matter when you’re playing them. Whether you’ve played eight games in a month or whether you’re playing in the playoffs or whether it’s the third game of the year, you’ve got to be mentally and physically sharp to play them without excuses. And there’s no excuses on that.”

Atlanta United has no such excuses now. Though the team won't have centerback Miles Robinson (hamstring) nor captain Michael Parkhurst (shoulder), manager Frank de Boer has consistently said the team is more than just the 11 starters, which is why everyone must be ready they are needed. It seems likely that Flo Pogba may get the call on Thursday because he's the last healthy centerback remaining.

Which position de Boer chooses to play Pogba is interesting because he can play either centerback or left fullback, which gives the manager some tactical flexibility. That freedom is something de Boer began to explore in the first meeting between the two teams and may have been the first step in helping the team eventually reach the postseason.

Philadelphia was leading that game 1-0 on March 17. Atlanta United’s offense was generating next to nothing with no shots on goal through the first 60 minutes. As the shots continued to not reach their target, de Boer began to experiment with the formation...twice. It was the first time during the season that he made significant in-game changes. Atlanta United got its tying goal from Ezequiel Barco in the 70th minute. De Boer said he got the confidence that the players and he were communicating well.

“Sometimes small details can influence the game,” he said. “It's good to know for me but especially the team because they have to execute it and they understand... if we swap a little bit from our shape, maybe we can be more effective defensively but especially of course offensively.”

Those changes were precursors. De Boer eventually changed the 3-4-3 formation to a 4-4-1-1/4-3-3 formation that resulted in the team winning six of its next game games.

After another change to a 3-5-2, one the team still uses, de Boer now will shift the team from one formation to another during games, depending upon the situation. He did so in each of the past two games, both times from a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3. The first time helped to see out a 3-1 win against New England. The second time sparked a 1-0 win against the Revolution in the first round of the playoffs.

De Boer said he typically selects the starting formation 3-4 days before a game. He didn’t offer hints what the team will use on Thursday.

Philadelphia is also very tactically flexible.

“They have this kind of changeability in their team, whether it be personnel that kind of changes their positioning or it’s just a straight up formation,” Larentowicz said. “Against us they played in kind of a diamond at home and the other day they played kind of a 4-2-3-1, sometimes it looks like a diamond. So that changeability, that movement on the field makes it difficult for really all the players. So I think we’re considering the different aspects of their game.”

But one thing that will be constant for both teams is attitude. Atlanta United has already won the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup to with last year’s MLS Cup.

Philadelphia twice came back from two goals down to defeat New York Red Bulls.

“So it’s something we can expect from them, no matter who’s on the field, is the amount of effort the amount of intensity that they bring,” Larentowicz said. “I think it comes from their coach. That’s certainly something that hasn’t changed.”

This article was written by Doug Roberson, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow Doug on Twitter @DougRobersonAJC.