If Atlanta United is going to end the season in the Eastern Conference top four, it’s going to have to earn it this week. The Five Stripes have a pair of head-to-head meetings with top-four rivals on the way, kicking off with a visit to Philadelphia Union on Wednesday night.
Atlanta has had a week and a half of rest since its last outing, but the cost for fresh legs was a slip in the standings. The Five Stripes fell from tied with 3rd on 49 points to 6th, two points out of fourth as other teams cash in their games in hand. Since the Leagues Cup break ended, Atlanta has gone 4W-2D-1L and is currently unbeaten in four, but the real test of its run-in is yet to appear. That’s going to change this week, however, as Atlanta takes on Philadelphia (4th) and Columbus Crew (5th). In short, if the Five Stripes are going to get a hold of a top-four spot and home-field advantage, it’s going to deserve it. A win against Philly would send Atlanta back to tied for third, but a draw or loss would mean it's at least two points out with only 2 games left.
Atlanta is going to have to figure out how to get wins against teams of that caliber regardless if it will make any noise in the playoffs, so this is a needed litmus test of just how good the Five Stripes are. The past few games seem to suggest that they’re quite good indeed, but barring the 2-1 loss to Cincinnati, it’s yet to stack up to teams as good as the Union and Columbus.
Philadelphia’s trend of season-over-season improvement seems to have come to an end in 2023 after coming so close to a trophy on so many occasions in 2022. Each time, however, LAFC was there to edge it out by the finest of margins in both the MLS Cup (a penalty shootout) and Supporters Shield (the wins tiebreaker). As if that wasn’t bad enough, LAFC also beat Philly in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals in May by a 4-1 aggregate scoreline. With that in mind, it’s understandable that the Union has been in a bit of a failure-induced stupor this season. Jim Curtin’s side has still been above average, but it’s missing the next gear that made it so dangerous last season. The roster remains largely the same, with Julian Carranza (12 goals, 4 assists), Mikael Uhre (8g, 3a), and Daniel Gazdag (13g, 5a) leading the 3rd best attack in the East, while Andre Blake and Co. have secured the tied for 3rd best defensive record. Nonetheless, Philadelphia was a spot or two higher on those rankings a year ago and since the Leagues Cup ended it’s managed just 2 wins from eight, currently on a run of five straight draws. The Union also played through a packed schedule, with the Atlanta game capping off 3 straight weeks of midweek fixtures. Perhaps the arrival of October and playoff time might be what’s needed to reinvigorate Philadelphia, and that seems to be what Curtin is hoping for after resting the majority of Philly’s starters over the weekend in preparation for a final push, starting with the Five Stripes.
Atlanta has a narrow lead in the all-time series at 5W-5D-4L, including a 2-0 win at the Benz earlier this season.
Predicted Starting XIs
Prediction: Philadelphia Union 2-2 Atlanta United
Atlanta won’t quite be able to pull off a statement win in Pennsylvania, but it will manage a draw against the Union after goals from Carranza (x2) and Giakoumakis and Xande Silva for the good guys.