Match Preview: Atlanta United at Sporting Kansas City

Atlanta United are looking for their third win in four matches as they travel to Kansas to face Sporting Kansas City Sunday. It’s the opening match of an intense stretch over the course of May for the Five Stripes, with seven matches and three Western Conference road trips –– and it’s a strong opponent to start it off.

If you can’t make the trip, you can catch all the action at 9:00 p.m. ET on FS1. For all the details on how to tune in to the match, click here.

Atlanta United (2-3-2)

After a bumpy start to the season, Atlanta United earned three points they needed last week at home to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. And while they sit lower in the table than they’re used to, the players know that just winning their games in hand will surge them all the way to the top of the East. If the Five Stripes can make it back-to-back wins in a tough road environment, confidence will be high as they hit a busy month of matches.

Up top, head coach Frank de Boer has his full array of talent at his disposal, with Pity Martinez getting the start last week as he returns to full fitness following his hamstring injury on international duty. Ezequiel Barco’s hot start to the season has him leading the team in goals so far, but with the likes of Josef Martinez, Tito Villalba and Julian Gressel all fit and firing, the manager has the best kind of selection headache heading into the weekend. Don’t expect the same packed-in defensive strategy from the opponent as last week; Sporting Kansas City is a team that likes to dominate possession just like Atlanta United do. The Five Stripes will be hoping that opens up some space for their attack to exploit for that crucial road goal.

But results away from home are often won in the back, and if Atlanta United can stay solid in the defensive half, it will go a long way toward getting all three points. SKC has one of the hottest attacks in the league to start the season, and they’ll be a handful for the likes of Miles Robinson and Leandro González Pirez in the back line. Frank de Boer has been consistent with his lineups so far, but there are still several positional battles: will it be Jeff Larentowicz or Eric Remedi locking down the middle? Will Franco Escobar retain his place or will Michael Parkhurst return to the back line? Each option has its own benefits –– Peter Vermes’ SKC side will have to wait until matchday to learn who they will have to face.

Sporting Kansas City (2-2-4)

A postseason contender who’s had a slow start due to a Concacaf-congested early season –– Sporting Kansas City’s season has a lot of similarities to Atlanta United’s so far. But much like the Five Stripes, SKC has a squad that is far superior to their current standing in the table, and will pose a stiff challenge in a tough home-field environment.

Leading the line for Sporting is Hungarian striker Krisztián Németh, who has hit the same hot form that made him one of the league’s most dangerous strikers for SKC a few seasons ago. His six goals lead the team, with much of his service coming from two dynamic wingers in Gerso Fernandes and Johnny Russell, who have a combined four goals and five assists through eight matches in the league this season. And the Atlanta United midfield will have to clamp down on Felipe Gutierrez, whose presence in the center of the park is at the heart of everything SKC does offensively. There’s a reason this team has 19 goals through eight matches so far this year – tied for second-best in the league. Success for Atlanta United will have to start at the back as they try to keep a clean sheet on the road.

But if a team is second in the league in goals scored and still sit below the playoff line, that means there are vulnerabilities in defense. Sporting have conceded 21 goals in their last six matches, including eight in their last two, a rare stretch for a SKC team that has been one of the stingiest in the league over the past few years. With Ike Opara’s offseason departure and injuries to key players ­­–– including Opara’s center back partner Matt Besler and defensive midfield talisman Roger Espinoza –– it’s been defense by committee for SKC so far this year. Atlanta United will be hoping to prey on that lack of familiarity to get on the scoresheet in front of the infamous “Blue Hell” of supporters in the stands.

Sunday is shaping up to be a tight matchup between two teams looking to spark their ascent up their respective conference standings. Make sure to tune in at 9:00 p.m. ET on FS1 or FOX Sports GO, or listen to the match via 92.9 The Game, La Mejor Atlanta or via the Atlanta United App. For more info on how to follow all the action, click here.