Atlanta United is looking to get back to winning ways in their long-awaited return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium Wednesday, as they host fellow 2017 MLS expansion side Minnesota United for the second time in team history. After securing an MLS record five straight clean sheet victories, the Five Stripes are coming off back-to-back losses –– and they’ll be hoping a rowdy home crowd can help push them to three points as they finish off a congested May schedule with a two-match homestand.
It’s a clash of two clubs fighting for postseason places, so make sure to tune in at 7 p.m. ET on Fox Sports South. For all the details on how to follow the match, click here.
Atlanta United (6-5-2)
With the Five Stripes’ two-match road skid behind them, they’ll be hoping a return to their home fortress will lead to a return to form as they look to continue their climb up the Eastern Conference standings. The squad has won three matches at Mercedes-Benz Stadium –– securing clean sheets all three times in a place they’ve never dropped points when they haven’t conceded a goal.
That is down to a defensive unit that has been one of the best in the league so far this year. The center back pairing especially has been perhaps MLS’s premier unit: Miles Robinson’s sensational play has led to a spot on the preliminary roster for the U.S. Men’s National Team this summer, while Leandro González Pirez’s 10.2 recoveries per game this season is good for second-best in the league so far in 2019. Meanwhile, Franco Escobar’s tireless running and strength cannot be overlooked in the back, and he showed once against Real Salt Lake he’s capable of providing a goal-creating spark down the right flank as well. Shielding the back line as always will be a combination of Eric Remedi, Jeff Larentowicz and Darlington Nagbe. And with George Bello still sidelined with a groin injury, it could be either Michael Parkhurst or Brek Shea deputizing on the left wing. Together they form a defensive unit that is tied for first in the league in goals conceded –– and one that’s hungry to get back to their clean sheet best after their heartbreaking last-minute loss in Utah on Friday.
In order to turn a solid defensive performance into three points, the Five Stripes will have to convert on the attacking side as well. And while Ezequiel Barco’s sensational early-season form is on display at the U-20 World Cup, there are plenty of attacking options up front. The last time Pity Martinez played in front of his home crowd, he was scoring the match-winning goal over Orlando City, so he’ll be hoping a return to home will be a return to goalscoring form. Meanwhile, Julian Gressel continues to be a consistent threat down the wing looking to feed Josef Martinez, the reigning MLS MVP who is eager to get back to his high-flying goalscoring ways after a signature striker’s finish on Friday to bring him to a team-high six goals on the year. If they can find ways to convert their scoring chances, the Five Stripes’ rock-solid defense and raucous home-field advantage could carry them over the line to get them back into the wins column.
Minnesota United (6-4-3)
Minnesota United are coming off back-to-back league wins for the first time since March, and have lost just one of their last six matches in league play. But that one loss came on their only road game in that stretch, so the Five Stripes will be hoping to take advantage of their home-field –– and avenge their only loss to Minnesota United in team history, in their only home meeting against the team back in 2017.
Their attacking spark comes from diminutive Colombian forward Darwin Quintero, who leads his team in goals and assists with a combined 8 so far this season. Quintero, however, has hit a bit of a dry spell, not recording a goal nor an assist in his last six appearances –– twice as long as his next-longest MLS drought. Picking up the slack in the goalscoring department has been fellow Colombian Angelo Rodriguez, who brings a more physical presence to the front line as a more traditional target-man striker. MLS veteran Ethan Finlay will bring tireless work ethic to the wing as he tries to get to the byline and provide service to Rodriguez in the middle, while the club’s first ever Designated Player, Kevin Molino, will be looking to kick-start his Minnesota career after spending more than an entire calendar year on the sideline due to a knee injury. And keep an eye out for Slovakian midfielder Ján Gregus, a deep-lying midfield playmaker who has been the heartbeat of the team’s passing play, always looking to ping long passes into the path of his wingers to set up goalscoring chances. Disrupting his time on the ball will be key for Atlanta’s midfield in this game.
All of that sits in front of a much-improved defensive half that has solidified Minnesota as a contender for a postseason spot in the Western Conference. The addition of MLS veterans Ozzie Alonso in midfield and Ike Opara in the back line have made the Loons a much tougher prospect to beat on the defensive end, while former Premier League goalkeeper Vito Mannone provides a last line of defense that can compete with anyone in the league. Unfortunately for Loons fans, right back Romain Métanire, one of the best fullbacks in the league so far this season, will be sidelined due to suspension from yellow card accumulation. Atlanta United may be able to exploit that space against a fill-in who may not be used to that starting role.
It’s a matchup of East vs. West –– and a long-awaited return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium –– so it’s one no Atlanta United fan will want to miss. Make sure to tune in at 7:00 p.m. ET Wednesday on Fox Sports South, or listen to the match via 92.9 The Game, La Mejor Atlanta or via the Atlanta United App. For more info on how to follow all the action, click here.