On the surface, the decision by Major League Soccer to begin its postseason after the FIFA international break in October and give the playoff teams a chance to regroup looked logistically sound.
For reigning MLS Cup champion Atlanta United, however, it has added a layer of consternation ahead of their first-round Eastern Conference matchup with the New England Revolution on Saturday.
Defender Miles Robinson has been ruled out of this game with a hamstring injury, a tough blow for the Five Stripes (18-12-4) as they embark on their quest to be the first repeat MLS Cup champions since the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2011-12. What irked United team president Darren Eales, though, was the circumstances surrounding the injury.
Robinson was with the U.S. National team for CONCACAF Nations League, and the center back pulled up injured during a post-match training session following a 7-0 victory over Cuba on Oct. 11. Appearing on Atlanta radio station 92.9 The Game, Eales took issue with U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter's decision to hold the training session.
"He goes on international duty, and 11 o'clock at night after a game where he sat on the bench, they're doing a hard training session and he's doing sprints and he pulls his hamstring," Eales said Tuesday. "Just really disappointed that he was put in that position."
The 22-year-old Robinson, who made his international debut in September, was a constant in Atlanta's back four, starting all but one match. He logged 3,921 minutes across 45 matches in all competitions and anchored a defense that registered 14 shutouts in the regular season.
"I do understand the frustration ... the small details of how it went down, how it happened, when it happened, those are conversations amongst our club and the federation will have moving forward," keeper and U.S. teammate Brad Guzan said, fully cognizant of the push and pull players have between club and country commitments. "From a player's side of things more times than not, when a national team calls you and you have the opportunity to represent your country, more guys than not will accept that call."
The good news for Atlanta is it has an offense that can overcome Robinson's absence. The Five Stripes closed the regular season with a 3-1 home victory over New England on Decision Day as star striker Josef Martinez returned from a two-game absence due to a knee injury to tally his 27th goal.
The Venezuela international has a staggering 77 goals in 83 regular-season matches since joining Atlanta in 2017 and will be joined in attack by Ezequiel Barco, who is fully healthy and made his first start since mid-August in the Oct. 6 victory over the Revs. Barco was limited to 15 matches this season due to injuries but did have four goals and four assists.
New England (11-11-12) overcame a horrific start to make the playoffs for the first time since 2015. The Revolution claimed eight points from their first 12 matches before cleaning house, firing coach Brad Friedel and general manager Mike Burns. They gave former U.S. coach Bruce Arena complete control upon his hiring, and the five-time MLS Cup winner reversed the fortunes of the struggling franchise as New England lost just three times in its final 22 matches (9-3-10).
The Revolution's offense revolves around their two Designated Players - MLS Newcomer of the Year Carles Gil and summer addition Gustavo Bou. Gil, who was a fairly non-descript player with Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna, totaled 10 goals and 14 assists. Twelve of the assists were primary ones, tying him for second in the MLS.
He formed an instant partnership with Bou, who arrived from Mexican side Tijuana in July and had nine goals and two assists in 14 matches, sparking New England to the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
"Right away, I knew Carles was a quality player," said Bou via an interpreter to the club's official website. "He's got that vision, that quality touch. Like we say in Argentina, that left leg is like a glove - he puts the ball wherever he wants it.
"Initially he was one of the first who kind of talked to me, and told me the ins and outs of the team and the city. Definitely him and I, since the beginning, we hit it off very well."
Keeper Matt Turner was also a beneficiary of Arena's arrival, taking over the No. 1 jersey and finishing with an 8-4-8 record and five clean sheets.
If there is an area of concern for New England, it has been an inability to punch above its weight. The Revs went 2-7-3 against fellow playoff teams, including 0-4-2 on the road versus their conference brethren.
Atlanta is 4-0-2 all-time versus New England after doing the double this season. The Five Stripes have won all three matches in Atlanta by a combined 12-2 scoreline. The winner of this game will face the winner of the Philadelphia-New York Red Bulls match Oct. 24 in the conference semifinals.