Analyzing the Enemy - Sporting KC

Atlanta United (10-7-4) are riding a five-match unbeaten run in MLS play, but face a stern test on the road this week as they travel to the Midwest to face Sporting Kansas City (9-4-9) for the first time ever. Atlanta has lost only once against Western Conference competition this season, and are averaging more than two and a half goals per game in those matches, but this weekend will be a challenge against the Western Conference leaders. Here’s what they can expect:

No Dom, No Problem…Yet

Losing one of the top goal scorers in team history is a big hole to fill, and that’s just what happened to Sporting Kansas City with the big-money move of Dom Dwyer to Orlando City last month. But SKC did well to adapt in their first test without him, scoring three goals in their 3-2 home win over Chicago last week. Since the start of the 2015 season, Sporting have scored 1.2 goals per game with Dwyer on the field, but that number actually ticks slightly up to 1.3 goals per game without him. With less of a focal point striker up top, SKC opted for a more fluid front three of Latif Blessing, Diego Rubio and Daniel Salloi last week, a young crew with the oldest just 24 years old. Atlanta United will be hoping the veteran leadership of Michael Parkhurst and Brad Guzan in the back will be able to outsmart the less experienced Kansas City trio.

Stingy Defense

There’s an old saying that defense wins championships, and if that’s the case, then watch out for Sporting Kansas City. Sporting has by far the best defensive record in the league with just 17 goals allowed in 22 matches this season – five goals less than the next best. Last weekend’s victory over the Chicago Fire was the first time all season that KC has allowed more than one goal at home all year, and they’ve allowed just seven in eleven home games so far this year.

While Seth Sinovic and U.S. internationals Matt Besler and Graham Zusi have played significant roles, none have been better than center back Ike Opara. MLSSoccer.com’s editors recently held a near-unanimous poll saying Opara has been the best defender in MLS so far this season. But Atlanta United’s defense has found some form of their own, with two consecutive clean sheets bringing their season total to three road clean sheets this season, tied for second best in the league. Either way, fans can expect a tough, defensive battle in Kansas City this weekend, with one moment of magic enough to swing the result either way.

Solid in Goal

When Atlanta United get past that back line, there will be another tricky obstacle in their way of bulging the net. The league’s best defense has been helped immensely by the play of goalkeeper Tim Melia, another contender for the MLS Best XI this season. The 2015 MLS Comeback Player of the Year has won more than 40 percent of the games he’s started this year and has nine clean sheets so far – both enough to lead MLS in those categories this year. The 31-year-old veteran also leads the league in save percentage, stopping more than 78% of the shots that have been on target against him this season.

Kickoff is set for Sunday at 8:00 p.m. EST, and the game will be broadcast on FS1, Fox Deportes and the FOX Sports Go app. You can listen to the game on the Atlanta United app or through one of our radio partners: 92.9 The Game or, for Spanish-speaking listeners, La Mejor Atlanta. Click here for a full rundown of how to follow along with the game.