Atlanta United didn’t get any favors from the MLS schedulers for their first long road trip in franchise history. Four MLS Cup Playoff teams, including reigning league champion Seattle Sounders FC and defending Eastern Conference champion Toronto FC, highlight a tough stretch that begins at CenturyLink Field on March 31 and ends at Rio Tinto Stadium on April 22.
Seattle welcomes Atlanta to the Pacific Northwest for an FS1 match to wrap up the month of March for both teams. Seattle, coming off their first MLS Cup title in franchise history, fired manager Sigi Schmid mid-season before going unbeaten in 12 of their final 14 regular season matches to finish fourth in the West under Brian Schmetzer, followed by a dream playoff run that ended in penalty kicks at Toronto FC in the final. The club will be looking to maintain that momentum in Schmetzer’s first full season at the helm as Atlanta United will get their first taste of one of the league’s most intimidating home grounds.
Atlanta heads to Toronto FC on April 8 to take on the Eastern Conference champion at BMO Field. Toronto finished third in the East, punching their ticket to the MLS Cup Final with a stirring 5-2 extra time victory at home against Montreal Impact to win 7-5 on aggregate. TFC boasts one of the league’s rising stars in Sebastian Giovinco (17 goals, 15 assists in 2016) along with USMNT member Jozy Altidore (10 goals last season), so Atlanta will have their hands full with one of the league’s higher scoring clubs from a season ago.
Eastern Conference runner-up Montreal Impact is next on United’s road swing a week later. Montreal had a middling regular season (11-11-12) and snuck into the playoffs as the fifth seed in the East, three points clear of sixth-place finisher Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution (tied with Philadelphia in points but missing out on goal differential). They enjoyed an unexpected path to the conference finals: they defeated D.C. United 4-2 in the knockout round before eliminating top-seeded New York Red Bulls 3-1 on aggregate in the semifinals, but saw their season end after seeing a 3-2 first-leg lead in the East finals turn into a 7-5 Toronto FC victory on aggregate.
The team’s road stretch ends at Real Salt Lake on April 22. RSL finished 12-12-10, good enough for the sixth and final spot in the West (which they clinched by two points over seventh-place Portland Timbers). However, their playoff stay didn’t last long as they lost to LA Galaxy by a 3-1 count at Stubhub Center. It was a decent bounce back season for a club that missed the MLS Cup Playoffs in 2015, despite a US Open semifinal appearance and a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal showing.
While that’s a rough stretch for Atlanta United, the good news is that it comes during the early stages of the season. It balances out later in the year as six of the final eight matches are at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. While the club will be away from home for nearly a month, they’ll face a good test during that time span.