Atlanta United’s MLS Cup defense continues for another week as they host the Philadelphia Union at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the Eastern Conference Semifinals Thursday. The Five Stripes are eager for payback for a home draw and road loss against the Union this season, and with the team just two wins away from a repeat appearance in MLS Cup, they’re ready to put everything on the line.
It all kicks off Thursday at 8:00 p.m. ET on ESPN2. If you can’t make the trip, click here for all the ways to tune in.
Atlanta United - #2 Seed
After a resilient, gritty performance to get past a plucky New England Revolution side, Atlanta United will get to protect their house once again with a spot in the Eastern Conference Final on the line.
Josef Martinez will lead the attack, and expect him to be extra hungry after being held out of the goal by the Revolution last week. 52 of Josef Martinez’s 81 MLS goals have come at home, and his six goals in six games against the Union is the second most of any team in the league, so he will certainly be on the prowl on Thursday. Joining him last week was Ezequiel Barco, who was sensational in his possession play and dynamic dribbling style –– all while playing the brilliant defense-splitting pass to assist the match-winning goal. But with players like Tito Villalba and Pity Martínez held in reserve last week, Frank de Boer has potent options at his disposal in the attack. With Emerson Hyndman and Darlington Nagbe providing constant outlets and positive passing from midfield, expect a relentless Atlanta United attack against a team that just put in a tough 120 minutes against the Red Bulls last week.
The only question mark is how De Boer will line up his defense after an unfortunately-timed injury bug for his back line. Miles Robinson’s hamstring injury on U.S. duty held him out last week. While Michael Parkhurst filled in for the Defender of the Year finalist exceptionally, his dislocated shoulder in the final minutes may hold him out this week as well. But this team hasn’t used injuries as an excuse yet this year and don’t expect that to start now. With players like Florentin Pogba and Jeff Larentowicz ready to slide into the back line, expect that “next man up” mentality to continue this week in front of Brad Guzan, who has more clean sheets than anyone in the league this year.
Philadelphia Union - #3 Seed
Atlanta United’s opponent this weekend come into the match in up-and-down form. After an incredible season that saw them top the East for much of the year, the Union’s one win in their final five regular season matches saw them back into the postseason as the third seed. But they’re coming off their biggest win in club history against the New York Red Bulls last week, fighting back from 3-1 down to win 4-3 in extra time for their first postseason win in club history.
The biggest question mark is whether their top scorer, Kacper Przybylko, will be fit to start after being held out last week with an ankle injury suffered in pre-match warmups. In his absence, the Union went with the physical, speedy presence of Andrew Wooten and Sergio Santos around the tricky, creative play of young, newly-called up U.S. international Brenden Aaronson to complete the front line. And of course if Atlanta United can stop the attacking starters, they’ll have to keep it up against one of the best super-subs in the league with Brazilian wizard Ilsinho ready to come off the bench.
But the Union may be best in the middle, where captain Alejandro Bedoya anchors a tough but talented trio in midfield. Jamiro Montero adds a dynamic, skilled dribbler to help propel attacks forward, while Haris Medunjanin is the metronome passer, creating a team-high eight chances with his incredible range of passing last week. Behind them sit a young but talented back line led by young Americans Jack Elliott and Mark McKenzie in the middle, flanked by Ray Gaddis and Kai Wagner in the fullback positions. And Andre Blake will be eager to bounce back after a nightmare performance last week in the Union goal. But he’s shown for years that he can be one of the best shot-stoppers in this league, so the Five Stripes will have to be clinical to find the corners against the Jamaican goalkeeper.
It’s that time of year where every opponent is a tough one, but Atlanta United will always be confident in their home fortress, Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Click here to reserve your tickets, or if you can’t make the trip to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, click here for all the ways to tune in.