Whenever the reigning champions play the top-seeded team in MLS, there’s going to be a little extra buzz heading into matchday. The mood at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Training was one of excitement for a team coming off two wins. And while there’s a healthy respect for what LAFC brings to the table, Atlanta United goes into every match looking for a result.
“Anytime you face the team that’s on top of MLS, you want to go out and have a strong performance,” Justin Meram told reporters. “It will be a good test for us to see where we are at. Playing against the best right now, I’m excited and I think everybody else is as well.”
“Of course we have respect for the opponent, but we also want to play our own game,” added Frank de Boer. “So we will see what we are going to bring on Friday. We are looking to our own strengths. With respect to LAFC. “
It’s no secret that LAFC have gotten off to a historic pace in the regular season, and the play of Carlos Vela has taken plenty of deserved headlines. But for Atlanta United, there’s been a big focus on the midfield.
“I think the heartbeat of the team is the three midfielders,” de Boer continued. “They are dynamic, they have quality on the ball, but also defensively they can stand their man up. They provide so that the three up front can play their game… Of course Vela is having a great season, but those three midfielders have a major impact on why they are where they are in the standings now.”
“It all kind of stems from the midfield,” Emerson Hyndman added, “the runners they have and how they win the ball back. So it’s going to be a big battle… We have to make sure we’re disciplined but at the same time put them under pressure and try to disturb them. You don’t want to go there and just defend and hope for a result. We have quality as well when we go forward so we want to make sure they know we’re there.”
LAFC’s quick start gives them a cushion in the standings, but Atlanta United know they are as in-form as any team in the league over the past two and a half months. If they can replicate the dominant play of the past two home matches, they know they can go toe to toe with anyone.
“It’s huge,” said Darlington Nagbe. “We know what we are capable of at home... When you go on the road, sometimes we may have to sit in a little bit. So, I think it’s finding the energy and then when the crowd is not behind you, you just have to play for each other and give it your all.”
The players said specifically they didn’t mind LAFC dominating the headlines, saying their play has deserved it this year. But it’s fair to expect a little extra edge for an Atlanta United team that wants to remind the league they’re still the reigning champs.
“It’s a very difficult game, but this game won’t determine the season,” Franco Escobar said, through a translator. “There are still many games left but it’s important mostly for confidence and to show that the team still has big aspirations to repeat what we did last year.”
“If I was a player right now, yes I would have that feeling,” De Boer admitted. “Ok, everybody is predicting or saying that this (LAFC) is the best team, let’s go and show them that we are the best team. I think, that eagerness, that pride you have to have. I want to see that from my players. ‘hey, everybody is talking about LAFC, let’s make them talk about us after this match’.”
It all kicks off at 10pm EST on ESPN from Los Angeles, California. Click here for all the ways to tune into the match.