The home stretch of the regular season is heating up, as Atlanta United faces four more opponents in their push for home-field advantage in the postseason. A win this weekend would clinch at least one postseason match at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, crucial in the new single-elimination structure. But with the San Jose Earthquakes fighting for postseason aspirations of their own, you can expect a tough battle in their first visit to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
It all kicks off at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday on Univision. If you can’t make the trip, click here for all the ways to tune in.
Atlanta United (16-11-3)
Atlanta United have already secured their spot in the postseason, but for a team with higher aspirations than just qualification, getting home-field advantage is now the goal as they look to defend their MLS Cup title. A win this weekend is a must to keep the pressure on NYCFC at the top of the East ahead of their trip to the Bronx on Wednesday.
It’s impossible to start with anything other than history, as Josef Martinez continues to chart new ground in MLS play. The Venezuelan striker has now scored in 15 straight games, six more than anyone else in league history, and just six games off Lionel Messi’s all-time world record. His mid-week brace in Cincinnati was set up by Pity Martínez and Julian Gressel, his two most likely providers all season, who will be constantly bombing down the wings looking to create magic either with a skilled through-ball or via Julian’s signature crossing. If Ezequiel Barco is still held out with injury, look for Emerson Hyndman to be the likely fill-in as he has been since his arrival, always looking for a positive pass to jump-start an attack.
But there’s history to be achieved on the other end as well, with goalkeeper Brad Guzan’s 14 clean sheets this year just two behind the MLS single-season record set by Tony Meola back in 2000. That of course starts in front of him, with the likely back line of Leandro González Pirez, Miles Robinson and Franco Escobar all available for selection. But there are plenty of options with a trip to NYCFC coming up on Wednesday. Don’t be surprised if Florentin Pogba or Jeff Larentowicz in the midfield brings a boost of fresh legs, with both players proving to be strong additions when called upon in the starting lineup. After a two-match dip in defensive form, this is a team eager to get back to their best, and they showed that in Cincinnati on Wednesday. If they can, it would set up the attack to go out and win the match with a moment of magic.
San Jose Earthquakes (13-12-5)
The San Jose Earthquakes have enjoyed one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the league in 2019. After finishing with one of the worst records in the history of MLS last year, new coach Matias Almeyda has turned them into a contender for a postseason spot.
That’s due in part to Almeyda’s signature man-marking press, a rare style that poses a unique challenge for opposing teams. His squad will keep a tight man-to-man mark down the field, taking away as many passing options as possible, looking to force the man in possession into a mistake. It’s a tactic most teams don’t see often, so it forces their opponent to adjust quickly. It’s key that Atlanta United keeps up their movement off the ball. If they can get past the press it could give them opportunities in transition against the likes of Florian Jungwirth and Guram Kashia in the center of the back line. Converted midfielder Tommy Thompson has proven to be a solid fullback, and keep an eye out for U.S. international Nick Lima looking to get forward as well on the opposite flank.
Moving forward, the catalyst for the attack is the man from Georgia –– the country, not the state –– Valeri Qazaishvili, or Vako. The quick, technical winger has 34 shots since the beginning of August, the second-most of any player in the league, so he is always looking to make something happen. But where he is most dangerous is on the ball, using his tight touches to get past his man and put a defense off balance. On the opposite flank is one of the more underrated players in all of MLS in Cristian Espinoza, with the skill and speed to break down any defense in the league. They’ll be looking to set up the man who’s scored more goals than anyone in league history, U.S. international Chris Wondolowski. The MLS legend usually requires service to get his chances, but his movement inside of the box is as good as anyone in the league, and he can certainly finish when he gets the opportunity. Keeping a shirt on him at all times when he’s in the box is easier said than done, but it will be key for Atlanta United if they hope to make it back-to-back clean sheets.
With a postseason berth secured, it’s all eyes on home-field advantage for Atlanta United –– and every point now is crucial to that goal, so this is a match you certainly won’t want to miss. Click here to get your tickets, or if you can’t make the trip, click here for all the ways to tune in from home.