With the FIFA international match window right around the corner, Atlanta United have a much-needed two-week break before returning to the field. But it has some business to take care of first in Philadelphia.
It’s not difficult to see the importance of Saturday’s match at the Union: both teams sit atop the Eastern Conference knotted at 48 points, but Atlanta have the advantage of both a match in hand and more wins than its opponent (15 to 14), wins being the first tiebreaker in the standings. Needless to say, while this one won’t determine once and for all who gets that top seed in the East, the winner will have a huge advantage as we head toward the back end of the regular season.
I checked in with Matt Ralph, managing editor of Brotherly Game, to get his thoughts on how the Union have stayed near the top of the East so long and what a win against Atlanta United would mean for their prospects moving forward.
Last we spoke was in March, a match that saw Atlanta draw the Union 1-1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. We weren’t sure how the rest of the season would play out for both teams, but here they are at the top of the Eastern Conference standings. What has been the main catalyst behind this terrific campaign for the Union?
I would say better roster construction and tactical flexibility have been keys to the Union’s campaign this year. Just as sporting director Ernst Tanner set out to do, he’s shaped them into a less predictable and more adaptable team that makes opponents uncomfortable and keeps opposing coaches guessing a lot more than in past seasons. Giving head coach Jim Curtin more freedom within the system has done wonders for his progression as a coach. He’s made some unexpected decisions and adjustments this season and many of them have paid off.
I heard of one Union podcaster calling this the biggest regular-season game in Union history. Do you agree with that sentiment? Another way of asking it: win, loss or draw - how would each potential result affect them as they look to gain that all-important home field advantage in the playoffs?
Philly fans, like fans elsewhere I imagine, can go pretty quickly from best thing ever to burn the whole thing down based on one game. The difference between Union fans and fans of the so-called Big Four in our market is that while Eagles fans will say every year they’re going to win the Super Bowl, the best you might get out of a Union fan in seasons past is that they’ll make the Open Cup final and lose it again. We’re in unchartered territory this season (I’d argue not having a Cup run has aided in this) having the team where it is in the standings going into Labor Day, but like last year there’s been far too much “this team would have lost this game in the past” and “this is the best Union team ever” etc. and still not enough belief in them actually being an elite team when compared to the bigger clubs. Getting points against Atlanta and LAFC will be a big step toward changing that conversation.
Alejandro Bedoya will miss Saturday’s match due to yellow card accumulation. Who steps in to fill his role in the lineup?
No one. It’s not a knock on anyone on the roster to say that you can’t fill the shoes of Captain Bedoya. Week in, week out Bedoya has been the hero for this team, doing so much of the dirty work that goes unnoticed. He had to score a goal in D.C. and grab a field mic to tell Congress to do something about gun violence to get the widespread attention he so rightly has deserved for his play on the field this season. His loss in this game - besides illustrating how dumb it is that a two-way midfielder can be suspended for getting six yellow cards over a 28-game stretch - is a massive blow, but depending on how Curtin lines up his team, he has Brenden Aaronson getting back into top form, Jamiro Monteiro healthy and the option of inserting Warren Creavalle to wreak havoc on his hometown team as a more defensive option.