Tools to the Match: How ATL UTD can maintain their lead at the top of the table

Sitting atop the Supporters’ Shield standings with a match in hand, Atlanta United (7-1-1) is looking to extend their unbeaten run to nine as they return to their home fortress to face Western Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City (6-2-2). The Five Stripes hold the number one spot in the league at the moment, but Sporting are just two points back and will be hungry to surpass them with a win on Wednesday. Make sure to tune in on Fox Sports South at 7:30 p.m. EST to catch every minute.

It’s the top of the East vs the best in the West, so Sporting KC will be one of Atlanta’s toughest challenges yet. Ahead of Wednesday night, we broke down the Tools to the Match presented by The Home Depot:

1) Eliminate Espinoza

While Sporting may have lost their playmaker in Benny Feilhaber over the offseason, they haven’t lost their anchor in the middle. Honduran international Roger Espinoza has spent his entire MLS career in Kansas City, currently playing in his ninth season and officially making his 200th league appearance in their last match against Colorado. The 31-year-old reads the game at an elite level, is a fierce tacklers, passes with class and acts as the rock in the middle of Sporting’s notoriously compact defensive side. With five assists already on the year, Espinoza is having one of his best seasons yet. Cutting off the supply to Espinoza and eliminating him from the KC equation that’s taken them to the top of the Western Conference could go a long way toward Atlanta maintaining an unbeaten record at home.

2) Contain Johnny

Few offseason MLS acquisitions have been as impactful as Sporting KC forward Johnny Russell this year. The Scottish international is fast, fearless, crafty and has a knack for finding the net. Through ten games, Russell has tallied five goals and two assists including a hat-trick in their 6-0 rout of Vancouver just a few weeks ago. He’s run rampant on the wings and caused constant headaches for opposing back lines, suffocating them on defense with a tireless workrate and deceiving them with his craftiness on the ball. There’s no doubt Russell will be looking to establish his case as a Newcomer of the Year candidate on Wednesday night. Atlanta will need to contain the nifty forward, or he could carve his way into dangerous areas.

3) Quick, Tight Passing

Last week, Atlanta faced a physical, defensively compact Chicago team that kept them off the board for a majority of the match and this week, the opponent will pose a similar test. Peter Vermes’s Sporting KC side is always well-disciplined and if Atlanta are to maintain their 3+ goals per game rate at home, they’ll need to pass quickly and be sharp in tight spaces as they were in their goal-scoring moves last week against the Fire. The on-the-ball technical skill and close touches of Darlington Nagbe, Ezequiel Barco and Miguel Almirón will be particularly crucial on Wednesday night as they look to find the gaps, penetrate the back line and break down the solid, cohesive defensive unit of KC.

Follow the Match:

Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. EST, with the match set to be broadcast on Fox Sports South and streamed on Fox Sports GO. You can listen to the game on the Atlanta United app or through one of our radio partners: 92.9 The Game or, for Spanish-speaking listeners, La Mejor Atlanta. Click here for a full rundown of how to follow along with the game.