Ah, August. It’s unreasonably hot, the transfer market has lost its mind, and school is about to start. That last one means that Georgia Tech needs to make its football stadium look like a football stadium so that 35,000 people can watch the Yellow Jackets get lucky and win 9 games this year or have the results match their talent level and win just enough games to go to the Depends Bowl in Tulsa or something.
It also means that as Mercedes Benz Stadium finishes construction, Atlanta United will hit the road for the next three games. Each of these matches will be challenging in different ways for the Five Stripes, taking on a defensive minded Sporting Kansas City side, a DC United team with 40% of their wins against Atlanta, and a Philadelphia Union team with unpredictable form week in and week out.
At the very least, Atlanta will head into these matches on a five game MLS unbeaten streak including two consecutive away wins. That said, SKC is unbeaten at home since June of 2016 so a win for Atlanta in this match would be an unexpected result against a team that starves away teams of points and goals.
The best defense in MLS vs. its top scoring offense
Sporting Kansas City might be at the top of the Western Conference, but the team has 36 points in 22 matches. In terms of points per match, they would be behind FC Dallas in the West and even with Atlanta United. In 2016, SKC finished in 5th in the West with a paltry +1 goal differential. Make no mistake though, this is a talented team and one that is improved over last year.
Coach Peter Vermes has taken a much more defensive mindset for his team this year and it shows. Sporting is scoring a paltry 1.27 goals a game but allows just .77 goals against. While these stats may look like a team that bunkers and counters with little other tactical thought put into their play, that is not the case. SKC is much more like Atletico Madrid with a constant press breaking up attacks and prevent shots rather than a team like the Colorado Rapids who just sit back and absorb pressure hoping that Tim Howard stands on his head every game.
Atlanta United is obviously no slouch when it comes to scoring goals, though the team has just two in the last two matches. Obviously, missing Josef Martinez has dampened the effectiveness of the offense, but one goal may be all it takes to win or draw this match. The Five Stripes have also shown improvement in an area of the game they struggled with in past matches this year: breaking teams down. After ugly losses in June to Vancouver and Chicago with few chances created, United found a way to win against Colorado, at Columbus, and away to Orlando City. Even last weekend when United needed a last minute stunner to draw with OCSC, the chances were there in a way they weren’t in matches two months ago.
An offensive awakening vs. a much improved defense
Sure, Sporting scored four goals last weekend, of course one was a Matt Besler own goal, and the the three they put up offensively was their highest output since beating Minnesota United 3-0 in early June. In the six games between last weekend and then the team averaged one goal a game in league matches. The result was a due to a combination of SKC effectively pressing the Fire as it was Chicago looking completely disjointed and out of sorts the entire match. On top of that, a usually stout Chicago Fire defense had some poor clearances and defensive lapses and Sporting punished their mistakes.
For their part, Atlanta United has held opponents to .5 goals a game since Brad Guzan joined the team at goalkeeper. Though it is a limited sample size, Guzan has played as promised and has added a leadership quality to the backline in those matches. While both of those games were against the same opponents, SKC and Orlando City offer some similarities. Each team struggles to score goals and relies on an aging playmaker to spur the attack. For United to continue their unbeaten streak, the team will have to maintain their defensive cohesion and not make mistakes for SKC to take advantage of.
Injuries and the attack
Complicating things for United will be playing without Greg Garza and Josef Martinez due to injury. Martinez is obviously a big loss for the side and has missed the last two matches, but Garza missing the game is particularly concerning. His likely replacement Mikey Ambrose, who came in for Garza when he went out against Orlando City, is a like for like swap but doesn’t possess the same crossing ability or have the same chemistry with Yamil Asad.
The left side of the attack has been the biggest strength for the team going forward and missing Garza will be a difficult challenge for the team to overcome. For Atlanta United to get a favorable result in the game, they will need to find ways to create chances even with two major pieces of the attack missing.
One last thing: VAR
This will be the first match Atlanta United plays competitively with VAR and it will be interesting to see if it has an impact on the outcome of the game and if referee Chris Penso or any of his linesmen call the game differently because of it.