Atlanta United are riding high after their most dominant win of the season so far, a 5-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday. But they’ll have to keep that high standard this weekend with a familiar face coming into town in D.C. United. It’s a team that’s given the Five Stripes trouble in the past, but if the red, black and gold can get repeat the performance of the last time these two have faced at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they’ll have a leg up with a second-place spot in the Eastern Conference on the line.
It all kicks off at 4 p.m. EST on Sunday on ESPN –– Click here for all the ways to tune in.
Atlanta United (10-8-3)
Atlanta United are eager to build on Wednesday’s slump-busting 5-0 rout over the Houston Dynamo. Fortunately for them, they get the 17s behind them for the second time in a week as they look to keep nipping at the heels of the pacesetters in the Eastern Conference.
The goal will be to feed Josef Martinez in the front line early and often, with the Venezuelan as hot as he’s ever been in MLS play. His six straight league matches with a goal is the best stretch in MLS since Josef himself did it last year –– and his 11 goals in 7 matches in all competitions makes him perhaps the most in-form forward in the league right now. Behind him, head coach Frank de Boer has the best kind of selection headache with plenty of players making their case for starting minutes. Justin Meram and Dion Pereira have been a pick-your-poison rotation on the left with both tearing up opposing defenses in their opportunities to start. Emerson Hyndman proved he’s ready to contribute with a stellar performance in his first Mercedes-Benz start on Wednesday, while Julian Gressel was back to his best with a two-assist, one-goal performance against Houston. And you can’t forget Pity Martínez, who is champing at the bit to get back on the pitch with fresh legs after being used as a substitute on Wednesday.
In the back, there is the welcome return of Franco Escobar to the injury-depleted defensive ranks, as he returns from his one-match suspension. With Mikey Ambrose, George Bello, Brek Shea and Florentin Pogba all expected to be out with injuries, you can expect usual faces like Miles Robinson, Leandro González Pirez and Michael Parkhurst lining up in the back in front of Brad Guzan. Meanwhile Eric Remedi will be fresh and ready to get back on the field after being held out to rest on Wednesday. Darlington Nagbe may get a chance to build on his first goal for the club, or perhaps even the newest face in Mo Adams could be ready to bring his special brand of defensive duties to the middle of the park. Whoever lines up, all ATL UTD will care about is staying solid and getting a win against a key competitor in their chase for home field advantage in the postseason.
D.C. United (9-5-8)
Atlanta United’s opponent this weekend is also looking to build on a midweek win after rebounding from a three-match winless run. With D.C. currently sitting two points ahead of Atlanta –– albeit with a match in hand –– it seems like this could be an early postseason preview in the Eastern Conference.
Leading the way of course is a legend of the game in Wayne Rooney, whose 11 goals and 6 assists are leading his team in both stats. He’s proven there’s plenty left in the tank after his midseason move from England last summer, and as the leader of the team, he will be trying to get on the ball as much as he can to dictate the play with his stellar passing range. He’ll be looking to combine early and often with a player that has given Atlanta United fits ever since 2017 in Lucho Acosta, who is back available for selection after serving a two-match suspension for a red card. As Lucho goes so does the team in this matchup in the past, so limiting the shifty Argentine’s time on the ball will be a top priority for a defense that’s eager to build on the midweek clean sheet. But the Five Stripes can’t slack on the wings either, with D.C. boasting weapons on both sides of the attack in Lucas Rodriguez and Paul Arriola: two dynamic dribblers fully capable of getting behind the defense, finishing chances and putting their team in front.
They’ll be expected to line up in front of a five-man back line that D.C. has used on the road at times this year, particularly against strong attacks like Atlanta United’s. On Wednesday, D.C. lined up with Steven Birnbaum and Fredric Brillant alongside promising young prospect Donovan Pines as the center backs, allowing fullbacks Joseph Mora and Leonardo Jara license to push up the field in attack. With one or both of Junior Moreno and Russell Canouse protecting the defense, there will be plenty of bodies to get through in order to threaten Bill Hamid’s goal. Expect D.C. to sit back and absorb pressure, looking for chances to spring Rooney and his fleet of pacy attacking teammates on the counter attack. Atlanta United will have to stay patient to find the openings in the attacking third without pulling players out of possession and leaving themselves vulnerable on the counter.
It’s another chance to prove themselves for Atlanta United as they look to build on their most dominant performance of the season –– and it’s a crucial match in the Eastern Conference standings with postseason implications. Make sure you’re cheering on the Five Stripes at 4:00 p.m. ET on ESPN Sunday; buy tickets here or click here for all the ways to tune in.