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Atlanta United at Real Salt Lake: What to watch for

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Altitude, RSL injuries, and two key players

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Montreal Impact Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

After Atlanta United was the victim of a wrongly pulled red card last week and lost despite putting together one of their best halves of soccer all year, the Five Stripes will head to the Rockies for the final game of the four game road stretch. While Real Salt Lake have played better of late under new manager Mike Petke, they are far from the dominant team that made the playoffs every year between 2008 and 2014 and won MLS Cup in 2009. For their part Atlanta will look to close out the road trip on a high note after a disappointing result last week.

Altitude

The players on Atlanta United are no stranger to playing at high elevations. MLS veterans Michael Parkhurst, Tyrone Mears, and Jeff Larentowicz are no strangers to playing in Utah and Colorado. Miguel Almiron and Carlos Carmona have faced teams in the high peaks of the Andes in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying. For his part, manager Tata Martino has taken national teams and club teams through the South American highlands in high stakes matches.

That said, going from the Georgia Piedmont to playing a match at 4,450 feet the next day doesn’t give a lot of time to acclimatize. Atlanta likes to play a fast, high pressing style that uses a lot of energy to sustain and in the game against Montreal, United did not stop trying to attack even after going down a man. Teams not accustomed to playing at altitude tend to run out of gas towards the last 15 minutes of matches and that is when late goals turn wins into draws and draws into losses. Watch if United goes early to the bench to get fresh legs into the game to keep up its energy level for the full 90.

The RSL Lineup

Real Salt Lake has struggled so far this year and one big reason has been injuries to just about everyone. Defender David Horst is out while Justen Glad, Tony Beltran, and Aaron Maund are questionable, midfielders Sunny and Jordan Allen join them, and forward Joao Plata has been in and out of the lineup to start the year. That has left the Claret and Cobalt with a total of eight goals scored and nine allowed in seven games.

Though they won their last two matches, the games were against Vancouver in the snow and Colorado who have been clueless without Axel Sjoberg in central defense. In games against more skilled offenses, RSL lost 4-2 to Minnesota United and 2-1 to the LA Galaxy so potent offenses have scored goals on them. With the stitched together backline, RSL will have a real test with the Atlanta United forward line which should be brimming with confidence after their performance last week.

Players to watch: Albert Rusnak and Brooks Lennon

Brooks Lennon, the 19 year old US U-20 player on loan from Liverpool, scored the game winner for RSL last week against the Colorado Rapids. The right winger has the ability to take on defenders 1v1 and will shoot from range if defenders fail to track him with the ball at his feet. Will Parchman has some poetic waxing about the winger that is worth checking out: basically he’s the American Arjen Robben who is able to ask existential questions about the expansion of the universe and zonal marking. When he as the ball Atlanta will need to rely on communication and teamwork to contain him or we’ll be watching him do the Ronaldo celebration again this weekend.

RSL midfielder Albert Rusnak has three assists and a goal on the season. While he isn’t Javier Morales, Atlanta defenders will have to watch him closely as he has shown that he has the vision and passing ability to set up his teammates for goals. Much of the RSL attack goes through him so expect him to be the focus of the defensive midfielders.