Tools to the Match: How ATL UTD can secure their postseason place

Atlanta United (16-6-4) can seal their place in the MLS Cup Playoffs this weekend, but to do it they’ll have to top a resurgent D.C. United (7-11-6) side with postseason aspirations of their own in the Five Stripes’ first trip to the brand new Audi Field. Atlanta are coming off back-to-back wins, but will have to be at their best to beat a team that’s proven tricky for them to break down in the past as the red, black and gold looks keep the pace at the top of the Supporters’ Shield standings.

Ahead of this weekend’s match, we broke down the Tools to the Match presented by The Home Depot:

Stop their dynamic attacking duo

The addition of European legend Wayne Rooney to the D.C. United front line added an instant injection of star power to the attack. Still boasting an exquisite first touch and an elite ability to drop back and create with the ball at his feet, it was the Manchester United legend who set up the opening goal in his only other meeting with Atlanta United earlier this summer. But having Rooney on the field also opens up space for others, and no one more so than Luciano Acosta, one of the in-form players in MLS this summer. Either of them are able to break down a defense with one touch, and will be the primary targets for Atlanta United to shut down. The Five Stripes’ ability to pressure them when they’re in possession, cut off their supply, avoid one-on-one situations and just make them uncomfortable on the ball will play a big part in if they can pick up the road result.

Exploit the wings

Whether it’s been Tito Villalba, Julian Gressel, or Andrew Carleton, Atlanta United have had success attacking the sides of D.C. United’s defense this season, and with Ezequiel Barco available to make his first appearance against the club this weekend, the wide attacking threats only get more dangerous. Four out of Atlanta United’s six goals against D.C. United so far this year have been finding space on the wing for a cross back inside to an open attacker. No one has more headed goals than Josef Martinez, who will always be lurking at one of the goalposts, while cutting it back to an onrushing Miguel Almirón at the top of the box was brutally effective against D.C. United earlier this year. The key for the Five Stripes will be to to find their teammates in the box as when they do find that space, as opposed to simply lobbing crosses in. With Tata Martino emphasizing earlier this season their need to get more bodies in the area on those crossing situations, there should be plenty of options in the middle once Atlanta finds the space on the flanks.

Bring the Energy

Much like Atlanta United last year, D.C. United face some heavy fixture congestion in the latter half of the season as they look to turn their games in hand into points and a possible playoff place. While the Five Stripes have played just three matches in August, D.C have played six, including one this past Wednesday night. The Five Stripes should come into the match fresher, both mentally and physically, so they have to use that to their advantage. Blitzing them with one of Atlanta’s signature early spells of pressure or hitting a fast break when D.C. does come out of their defense could help Atlanta capitalize on their speed and fresh legs. And if an Atlanta goal doesn’t come early, sticking to the plan and retaining possession will wear down D.C. United, making them chase the ball on defense and hopefully forcing them into a mental lapse or defensive mistake.

Follow the Match:

Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. EST on Sunday, with the match set to be broadcast on Fox Sports 1 and streamed on the Fox Sports GO app. 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.