I know I’ve been waiting for this day for almost three years now and am truly amazed at how everything has come together. Atlanta United has people rethinking what they believe about Atlanta as a sports town with the level of support that the city has shown from MLS announcing the team, to the name unveiling, to the kit release party, and the incredible level of support the team has had in preseason. It is something that I am really proud of as an Atlantan and something that I’m looking forward to sharing with the city for years and decades to come. Whatever happens on the pitch, savor every minute of Sunday, the game will be a once in a lifetime experience.
On to the soccer...
In a lot of ways, March 5th is the best possible day to face a team that earned the top spot in the Eastern Conference last year. They will be traveling from Vancouver on Friday, and will need to pass through customs - welcome to Atlanta, where they just lost to the Whitecaps in the CONCACAF Champions League in unconvincing fashion. Jesse Marsch is already cranky about it and that can only help set a negative tone coming into Atlanta. Otherwise, the atmosphere at Bobby Dodd will be incredible. I’m sure other games will draw big crowds but this will be a championship game atmosphere and New York is just looking to lick its wounds. Here’s what to watch for.
The Sacha Kljestan Gene
Whether it is because he is stiff with age due to disuse over the offseason, or if he struggles to adjust to offseason changes, perhaps its in his genes, but since rejoining MLS in 2015 Sacha Kljestan has started off slow. In the opening six games of the past two years Kljestan has two goals and one assist - combined. Whatever the cause, the opening few weeks of the last two MLS seasons do not reflect the truly exceptional talent that he has and on Sunday if he doesn’t look like the player who notched 20 assists last year, New York will have trouble creating chances.
The New York Lineup
The Red Bulls could go one of two ways with this. The first would be lining up with largely the same 11 that the team did against Vancouver and try to salvage a point or steal a win against Atlanta. A point or three for New York would set the tone early and push back against those early season struggles that seem to beset the team. On the other hand, Jesse Marsch may have looked at what Portland did in 2015 and what Seattle did in 2016 and save his team’s energy for a late run. If I had to say, I predict that Marsch will put his A-Team on the field and go for a win while Atlanta is still trying to gel.
Key Matchup: New York vs. Our Speed
We are fast, Tito Villalba is a thoroughbred who runs past defenders like they are standing still and by the time they feel the breeze of him passing, the ball is on the way to the back of the net. Josef Martinez is not much slower while Miguel Almiron and Yamil Asad are fast in their own right. What I’m saying is that they’re quick. Vancouver’s pacey wingers ran circles around the Red Bulls and the team scored two goals against a Red Bulls defense that never looked comfortable. I don’t think they can run with us and I expect that we will create a lot of chances from our ability to transition with speed.