What seemed impossible a year, or even eight months ago, is now a reality. Atlanta United is on the cusp of missing out on the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time in its albeit short history. That is, unless the Five Stripes start getting some results in its final four games of the season. With two of those against teams from the top four of the Eastern Conference, and two against the bottom teams in the league, Atlanta has to take advantage of the winnable matches. DC United’s visit to Mercedes-Benz Stadium fits that description and a win is requisite.
Since Atlanta’s 4-0 thumping of DC, the league’s bottom dwellers have been forced into some major changes. Ben Olsen, who had been at the helm for a decade, was sacked following a 4-1 defeat to NYCFC that came days after the Atlanta loss. That defeat capped off a run of one win in 11 games since a group stage MLSisBack exit which rooted DC to the floor of the Eastern Conference. Since then, though, there have been signs of life in the capitol. DC still is in last, but the gap between it and the playoff line is down to five points. A loss to the Chicago Fire was followed by a draw against the high-flying Philadelphia Union and victory over FC Cincinnati. Even with that ever so slight turnaround in form, many of the same problems persist. Out of the five goals DC has scored in its last three, one has been an own-goal, another a penalty, two from center-back Donovan Pines on set pieces, and only one from open-play. With Atlanta’s defense finding its form in recent weeks, having conceded just two in its last five, the odds are DC will face similar struggles once again.
Atlanta United’s defeat to Toronto FC coupled with other results around the league was enough to send the Five Stripes below the red line and into 11th. The road to regaining a postseason spot is not an easy one. Atlanta is already playing catch-up. Tenth-placed Chicago Fire, currently a point ahead, has a game in hand while the next closest side (Montreal) has a 4-point cushion. Atlanta may be forced to win out in order to secure a postseason berth. On the plus side, the Five Stripes’ biggest weakness is receiving a big boost. With just one goal in its last four, Marcelino Moreno and Ezequiel Barco’s returns will be invaluable to Atlanta. DC’s defense could be the ideal punching bag against which to get both players into form. DC has gone nine games without a shutout and leaked in the second highest tally in the East (33).
Predicted Starting XIs
Prediction: Atlanta United 2-0 D.C. United
Even with the coaching change, DC won’t offer much more resistance than it did in the prior meeting between these sides. With a near first-choice eleven on the pitch for perhaps the first time in Stephen Glass’ tenure, Atlanta should get back to winning ways when it needs to the most.