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Match Preview: Atlanta United at Philadelphia Union

Atlanta United are just days removed from winning their second trophy of the month at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but now it’s all eyes on league play with a key road fixture coming up this weekend. The Five Stripes now travel to Pennsylvania to face the Philadelphia Union, their top contender in the East right now as they fight for the top seed heading into the postseason. With both teams eager to hold home field advantage in the playoffs, this is yet another match with plenty on the line as the team heads into the final stretch of the regular season.

It all kicks off at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on Fox Sports Southeast. If you can’t make the trip, click here for all the ways to tune in.

Atlanta United (15-9-3)

The games are coming thick and fast for Atlanta United, but with seven straight wins in all competitions and two trophy raises in that span, the Five Stripes are clicking on all cylinders at the perfect time of the season. If they can get through one more match they’ll enter the international break on a high, with a well-deserved week off before the final stretch of the season.

Their red-hot form has been headlined by the unstoppable play of Josef Martinez, whose twelve straight league matches with a goal puts him alone on top of the MLS record books. But it’s been the multi-pronged attack of Pity Martínez, Ezequiel Barco and wing backs Justin Meram and Julian Gressel that have proven to be too much for opponents to stop over the past few months. It’s been a dominant formula, with Barco and Martínez playing as fluid, dynamic runners around the central figure of Josef Martinez up top. With Barco questionable for the weekend, don't expect a drop off with the likes of Emerson Hyndman, Tito Villalba or Dion Pereira stepping right in, taking on defenders and opening up space for the relentless attacks of the marauding fullbacks ready to pounce on each wing. Add in the rock-solid play of Darlington Nagbe, the constantly-available outlet pass to maintain possession like no one else can in this league, it’s been a formula that’s been too tough for any team to crack over the past few weeks.

But this team is more than just an attack, with just one league goal conceded over the past month. It starts in the midfield with Eric Remedi or Jeff Larentowicz adding the hassling defense to Nagbe’s two-way play. Behind them has been Florentin Pogba, Leandro González Pirez and Miles Robinson, who just earned his first, well-deserved call-up to the U.S. Men’s National Team. But with Franco Escobar returning to the lineup on Tuesday, it gives Frank de Boer options to switch out some possibly tired legs. And there may be no better goalkeeper in MLS this year behind them than Brad Guzan. The U.S. international is just three clean sheets away from a league record of his own. And while a shutout is a statistic to share for the whole team, he’s proven to be an incredible last line of defense for the Five Stripes in between the goalposts. Tired legs may be starting to add up, but this team has been resilient all year. One more win would send them into the international break on a high as they prepare for the home stretch of the season.

Philadelphia Union (14-8-6)

There’s a reason the Union have matched the Five Stripes step for step in their march up the Eastern Conference table this year, with a deep, solid roster without any major flaws from front to back. Starting up top has been Polish striker Kacper Pryzybylko who has been nothing short of a revelation since joining the club last Fall, leading the team with twelve goals this season. Joining him in the attacking third has been another of this season’s breakout stars in 18-year-old American midfielder Brenden Aaronson, a shifty, creative playmaker who will be looking to find pockets of space in front of the Atlanta United back four. Another dynamic American, Fafa Picault, has been the preferred starter for most of the season on the opposite wing, while Brazilian dribbling maestro Ilsinho brings another crafty weapon to the wide areas, often as an impact sub.

But perhaps the key for the Union this season is that attacking flair is sprinkled on top of a solid foundation, and that starts in the midfield. Captain Alejandro Bedoya is forced out of the lineup this weekend due to yellow card accumulation and will be a major miss –– but with players like Jamiro Monteiro, Haris Medunjanin and veteran Mexican international Marco Fabián all available for selection, they have plenty of weapons to choose from. And behind them is a deep, young and talented back line, headlined by young Americans Mark McKenzie, Jack Elliott and Auston Trusty, with Kai Wagner and Raymon Gaddis adding speed and defensive workrate to the flanks. And if you get past them you still have to beat Andre Blake in the Union goal, one of the best pure shot-stoppers in the league.

Head coach Jim Curtin’s Union has been flirting with success for the past several seasons, but a couple of key additions have helped them make the jump into the Eastern Conference elite. After the 1-1 draw between these two teams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium earlier this year, both teams will be coming in confident and hungry for all three points to separate themselves at the top of the conference.

It’s another key Eastern Conference match with two teams fighting for vital postseason positioning, so this is one you won’t want to miss. If you can’t make the trip to Philly, click here for all the ways to tune in from home.

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