It’s the type of challenge top players play for: traveling to the top team in the standings trying to break up their unbeaten home record this season. That’s just what Atlanta United (11-8-3) get this week as they travel to LAFC (14-3-4) in one of the matchups of the season in Major League Soccer. LAFC are top of the table for a reason, but ATL UTD has the weapons to beat any team if they can play at their best in hostile territory.
Ahead of one of the best regular season MLS matches of the season, we broke down the Tools to the Match, presented by The Home Depot.
Smother the Candle
There’s no way around it, LAFC’s talisman in the attack is having one of the all-time best seasons in Major League Soccer. Carlos Vela’s 21 goals have him as clear favorite in the Golden Boot race –– and as a challenger to Josef’s scoring record –– while his 8 assists are just one off the league lead. While he doesn’t have top-end speed, his quickness with his first step, his creativity with the pass and intelligence on the ball make him a nightmare for any defender. But Vela is least effective when he’s isolated from his teammates. Getting physical with him early to not allow him any easy passes to disrupt his flow will be key for Atlanta United to knock Vela and LAFC out of their rhythm. And just ask any defender in the league: don’t let him get the ball on his left foot near the goal. His trademark move to cut in from the left may seem predictable, but there are plenty of defenders in this league who knew the move was coming and couldn’t stop it. Driving him to his weaker right foot and away from goal will be crucial for the Atlanta United defense.
Vela is the MVP front-runner, and Diego Rossi’s dynamic speed and finishing on the other wing make them a formidable combo. But pulling the strings behind them is a player quietly having one of the best seasons in Major League Soccer this year in Colombian playmaker Eduard Atuesta. Atuesta may not score as many goals as his teammates, but he is the one constantly pulling the strings from the midfield in attack. He’s quick in his thought and incisive in his passing –– and no one has set up Vela and Rossi for those one-on-one opportunities with quick forward passes more often than Atuesta. Atlanta United will have to be constantly aware of where Atuesta is on the field. If they can starve him of service and not allow him time on the ball, it will go a long way toward slowing down the LAFC attacking machine.
Hit the Wings
With Mark-Anthony Kaye patrolling the midfield in front of Walker Zimmerman and Eddie Segura in the back line, LAFC’s spine is one of the strongest in the league – and it shows, with their 20 goals allowed this year the best in the league. And while there are few true weakness to this team, teams this year have been most successful attacking LAFC by diverting away from that solid core and attacking from the wings. LAFC’s loss last week may have come because of a Zlatan Ibrahimovic masterclass, but if you look at where the goals started, they started from the wings. And it’s the same if you go back to ATL UTD’s 5-0 win over LAFC last year: every open-play goal came down to finding space on the wing with quick combination play and getting a quick ball across the middle to mop up in front of goal. Zlatan’s aerial dominance may only be matched by Josef’s statistically in this league, so the Venezuelan will be on the prowl for chances in the air. If they can find space on the wings and get LAFC’s defense back on their heels running toward their own goal, it will help destabilize that solid foundation and let the likes of Josef Martinez find the cracks to exploit for a winner.
The match is set to kick off Friday at 10 p.m. EST from Los Angeles California, and you can watch the match on ESPN. For more details on how to follow along from home, click here.