Match Preview: Atlanta United at LAFC

It’s finally here. One of the first matches any MLS fan circled on their calendar at the start of the season: the reigning champs against this year’s top team so far with Atlanta United facing LAFC. Traveling across the country to face the Supporters’ Shield favorites is a tough challenge for any club, but the Five Stripes have the talent to go toe-to-toe with LAFC, and they’ll be hoping their form will carry them to a result on Friday in the battle of two of the best teams in MLS.

It all kicks off at 10 p.m. EST Friday on ESPN –– Click here for all the ways to tune in.

Atlanta United (11-8-3)

It wasn’t so long ago that Atlanta United were in last place in the East, but that feels like a distant memory with a chance to end Friday night on top of the Eastern Conference with a win this weekend. With key names rounding into form and returning from injury, the Five Stripes have as much a chance as any to be the first team to win at LAFC this year.

If they do, it will almost certainly include a defining moment from Josef Martinez, whose red-form scoring form is reaching historic levels once again. The Venezuelan has scored in 7 straight matches, two off his own record for the longest goal streak in MLS, with 11 goals in those seven games. But Pity Martinez showed he is ready to take a larger role with a match-winning showing against D.C. United on Sunday with a game-winning goal and an assist to cap it off in just a 25-minute substitute appearance. With Justin Meram, Dion Pereira, Julian Gressel and Brandon Vazquez all chipping in with big performances in the team’s run up the table –– and with Ezequiel Barco nearing full fitness after his return to training –– there are plenty of weapons for LAFC to worry about in the attack.

Behind them is the best kind of selection headache for Frank de Boer, with several central midfielders making a case for starting minutes. Emerson Hyndman and Darlington Nagbe have been the first-choice pairing in front of Eric Remedi, but don’t forget about Jeff Larentowicz’s calming veteran presence or new signing Mo Adams’ relentless pressure in the middle. They protect a defense that is back to its best with just two goals conceded in their past four matches in all competitions. Brad Guzan’s ten clean sheets is the best in the league this season for a reason, but he’ll need a top-notch performance from the likes of Leandro González Pirez, Miles Robinson, and the rest of the ATL UTD back line to keep another. If they can do that, keeping that road clean sheet will be a huge factor in getting a result in LA on Friday.

LAFC (14-3-4)

It’s no secret that LAFC have been a nearly-unstoppable force this season, with the league’s best record in both goals conceded and goals allowed. With last year’s 5-0 loss at Mercedes-Benz Stadium still on their mind and with Supporters’ Shield dreams to chase, Atlanta United will have to be at their very best to come out of Los Angeles with a result.

In the attack, it all starts with Mexican international and former Arsenal and LaLiga star Carlos Vela, who currently leads the league with 21 goals and is one off the league lead in assists with 8 this season. But Vela’s infamous cut in from the right onto his lethal left is complemented by young Uruguayan starlet Diego Rossi cutting in from the left, already tallying 11 goals this year. It’ll be either Adama Diomande or Christian Ramirez leading the line, bringing a physical focal point to the creative players around them. And keep an eye out for Eduard Atuesta in the center of the park. The Colombian playmaker may only have one goal this year, but his eye for a pass is one of the best in the league with his 8 assists just one off the league lead. He will be trying to get on the ball as much as possible to dictate play with his incisive, forward passing. Limiting his time in possession will be key for the Atlanta United midfield.

LAFC’s attack is strong, but there’s a reason they have the top-ranked team in scoring defense as well –– and that’s down to having a complete lineup from front to back. Joining Atuesta in midfield is Latif Blessing, whose surprise move from the wing has brought results with plenty of energy and another creative passer in the middle. Cleaning up the rest is Mark-Anthony Kaye, a lanky but powerful central midfielder whose long stride helps him cover a lot of ground doing the dirty work for his attacking teammates. They’ll be lining up in front of the cornerstone of their defense in USMNT center back and Georgia native Walker Zimmerman, who joins Eddie Segura in the middle of the back line. MLS veterans Jordan Harvey and Steven Beitashour are expected to lock down the flanks, but don’t be surprised if Tristan Blackmon is brought back in at fullback to bring some youth and energy to a veteran back line in front of Tyler Miller.

It’s a tough matchup, but Atlanta United is ready for the challenge against anyone in this league. And this was a popular preseason MLS Cup prediction for a reason: it’s two of the very best teams in MLS putting each other to the test, and that’s a challenge any player relishes to take on. Make sure you’re cheering on the Five Stripes at 10:00 p.m. ET on ESPN Friday; click here for all the ways to tune in.