It’s Labor Day weekend, which means that it’s the last opportunity to get that summer road trip in that you’ve been planning. Atlanta United will be on the road as well: it’s at D.C. United on Sunday night to get its first taste of Audi Field and hopefully sweep the three-match season series between the two clubs. With the holiday, don’t be surprised to see a heavy presence of Atlanta fans making the trip to our nation’s capital in hopes of seeing Tata’s crew win its league-high ninth away match and extend its unbeaten streak to eight in a row. Our friend Yamil Asad will be there, too!
When these two teams last met, Josef Martinez scored his sixth hat trick of his career, an MLS record. Yes, you read correctly: no other league player other than Josef Martinez has had more than five hat tricks over the course of their career. Keep in mind, too, that No. 6 came in just his 42nd game in the league - Sebastian Giovinco, who has had a few years’ head start, had three in his first year (2015) and two more the year after, while Stern John had three in 1998 and back-to-back ones the next year, so they’re probably more realistic comparisons in this department than Landon Donovan and Diego Serna, the other members of the five hat-trick club.
Martinez can add yet another record to his ledger on Sunday. His record-breaking 28th goal of the season against Orlando City was his ninth consecutive match in which he’s scored. If he bags one at D.C., he’ll move out of a tie with Portland’s Diego Valeri and into the lead by himself.
In a matter of four days, Wayne Rooney truly announced his arrival to MLS. On August 12, his beautiful rundown of Will Johnson and subsequent run ended with a absolute gem of a ball into the box to Lucho Acosta, who finished the job with a header to sink Orlando City at the death. He went on to score twice at Portland in a 4-1 win that had D.C. fans dreaming in earnest of a late playoff run.
What’s he done since then? Well...it’s been a little frustrating. He had a couple of great looks against the Red Bulls, seeing a free kick knocked aside by Luis Robles before hitting the crossbar in the 66th on a potential equalizer. At Philly on Wednesday, he served up a juicy chip that tailed away just enough to keep him off the scoresheet after his 8th minute chance found the woodwork.
That’s not to say Rooney’s not shown the flashes that made him such a great player in England. Knowing his quality of play, he’ll snap out of it and get back to scoring goals, and with a good bit of home matches left to go, things set up pretty nicely. But Atlanta will hope that its success against him when these teams met in July carries over to Sunday and that they’re able to keep him at bay for at least one more night.
Feeling a little stuffy
Like Atlanta United last year, D.C. United’s delays getting into Audi Field are both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that after a match at NYCFC on Saturday, it plays seven in a row at home - in fact, this is their fifth match of their past six that has come in their house. It’s a curse because of, inevitably, fixture congestion. Sunday will mark D.C.’s third match in eight days and, after a six day rest, have another three-in-eight-day stretch heading into the international break. While Ben Olsen has been able to do some shuffling to his lineup as a result, one wonders if D.C. being forced to play a compressed schedule benefits an Atlanta side that has had the benefit of having a week-plus off.
Sure, let’s talk about playoffs. The main thing to note is that there’s really no realistic way Atlanta United miss the playoffs in 2018. It could even clinch before hitting the field: a New England loss coupled with anything less than three points for Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact on Saturday will do the trick. Even if all that doesn’t come to fruition, if Atlanta beats D.C., it’s in.
But let’s be clear. A win will mean more than securing a spot in the top six with the tail end of the season to go. As it stands now, the Supporters’ Shield race is down to a pair of teams: Atlanta and the Red Bulls. RBNY, who travel to the Impact on Saturday, currently hold a one-point edge over Atlanta, but the Five Stripes will still have two matches in hand when they take the field the next day. Atlanta simply can’t afford to drop points against teams it should very well beat.
Having said that, I’m not chalking up D.C. as an automatic win, because they’re a much more improved group than they were even a few months ago, the loss against the Union on Wednesday notwithstanding. If they win on Sunday, I feel good about Atlanta taking care of business against a couple of bottom-feeders in Colorado and San Jose - altitude and travel distance aside - to wrap up a perfect road swing.