It’s hard to see the buzzsaw that Atlanta United has resembled under Gonzalo Pineda slowing down anytime soon. Ever since a lifeless 2-0 loss to Nashville SC on August 28th, it’s been high-scoring win after high-scoring win for the Five Stripes. But the path to the postseason is entering a rather rocky stretch. Atlanta has taken care of its business at the Benz but trips to Philadelphia and Montreal in the coming week will test just how far Pineda’s side can go. With the Eastern Conference playoff race as tight as ever, there’s little room for error either.
Like Atlanta, Philadelphia had much loftier expectations for the season than a playoff dogfight come September. The Union, who hoisted the 2020 Supporters Sheild with 47 points in 23 games last season, have struggled to replace expensive exports Brendan Aaronson and Mark McKenzie. New signings Daniel Gazdag and Leon Flach have shown promise but are yet to make a real impact in Pennsylvania. The Union’s struggles are most evident in the final third. The team that laid claim to the best attack in the East last season is now eight in goals scored. Kacper Przybyłko leads Philly with 8 goals while Sergio Santos and Cory Burke are both at four. Those numbers aren’t particularly underwhelming but as of yet, no one has stepped up to replace the Aaronson-sized hole in the Union’s production. DP attacking midfielder Jamiro Monteiro has also regressed amidst rumors (that were confirmed by head coach Jim Curtain) of a summer exit that ultimately fell apart before the deadline. Philadelphia had still seemed like a playoff lock for the majority of the campaign but a recent collapse sent it below the red line before last weekend’s 3-1 win over Orlando that broke a three-game winless slide. Another three points at home against a surging Atlanta would go a long way to reassuring any doubts about whether the Union will be playing postseason soccer.
Despite its three-game winning run, Atlanta’s grip on a playoff spot isn’t as firm as we’d like. The Five Stripes are sixth with 36 points, but Philly (35 points and a game in hand) and DC United (34 pts) are still in the mix. Fourth, and the last home playoff game, is currently held by Orlando City with 38 points. Third-placed NYCFCC (39 points) isn’t unreachable either, but Atlanta has to win games like Saturday’s to make that possible. In other words, the Eastern Conference is one big mess.
Predicted Starting XIs
Prediction: Philadelphia Union 1-2 Atlanta United
Josef is listed as day-to-day and doubtful to start, but that won’t slow down the good guys. A Luiz Araujo brace will give the Five Stripes the edge at Subaru Park as Atlanta takes another big step towards the playoffs.