Atlanta United (7-1-1) are looking to extend their unbeaten streak to nine on Wednesday night as they host Western Conference leaders Sporting KC (6-2-2). Just two points separate the two sides at the top of the Supporters’ Shield standings, so Wednesday night will be a matchup you don’t want to miss. For KC, forward Johnny Russell’s hat trick performance and flare up front have turned heads around the league, but here’s what else Five Stripes fans can expect from Sporting:
The Brick on the Back Line
One of Sporting’s most crucial pieces in their fortified defensive unit is center back Ike Opara. The 29-year-old defender is smart, strong, dominant in the air and possesses arguably the best recovery speed of any center back in the league. Last year, Sporting’s defense led the league in fewest goals conceded, only allowing 29 goals all season (eight less than the next best club). Much of that can be attributed to Opara’s monster of a year in which he was named in the MLS Best XI and earned the league award for Defender of the Year. Atlanta will not only have to worry about crafting their way past Opara in the final third, but they’ll also need to be wary of him on Sporting’s set pieces as he poses a severe aerial threat at 6’2”. Even with one of the most potent attacks in MLS, Opara and SKC are going to be a tough nut to crack.
The Wall in Net
Opara is just one of many defensive presences along the Sporting back line, and even if Atlanta are to find a route through them, they will still have to find a way past the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, Tim Melia. The MLS veteran found his way into the SKC lineup in 2015 and has been a household name for the club ever since. He’s another key piece in Peter Vermes’s impressive defensive unit and last year marked his best season yet – voted the team MVP after setting a club record for a 0.78 goals against average while recording 10 clean sheets (2nd in MLS in 2017). He’s proven to be one of the elite goalkeepers in the league coming up big in clutch moments but also a as a consistent shot stopper and team leader from the back. He’ll perhaps be Atlanta’s toughest test in net thus far this season for a team that’s averaging more than three goals a game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Homegrown Hero
SKC made a massive effort to reinforce their attack over the offseason bringing in Khiry Shelton, Johnny Russell, Yohan Croizet and Felipe Gutierrez, but a piece of their 2018 attack that has flown under the radar is Homegrown player Daniel Salloi. Making his debut last season, the 21-year-old Hungarian is still fairly new to the team but has wasted no time making an impact up front. Salloi’s quickness, cleverness, and ball skill has led him to tally two goals and four assists in almost as many starts as he had all of last season. With his technical abilities and swift movement in the final third, he’s yet another dynamic in the Peter Vermes puzzle that has surged into second in the Supporters’ Shield standings. Atlanta will want to keep the Homegrown off the ball because he’s a consistent creative outlet for his side and could spark an SKC attack at any moment.
This weekend’s match kicks off at 7:30 p.m. EST on Wednesday, May 9th, and will be broadcast on FOX Sports South. Click here for everything you need to know about how to follow along from home.