When The Athletic wrote about Philadelphia Union’s rise to the top of MLS, one easy point of comparison was Atlanta United FC. Whereas the Union’s roster is made up of hidden gems and academy talent, Atlanta’s is stuffed full of undeniably talented but extremely expensive players who all play some version of a ‘dynamic attacker’ role, plus Santiago Sosa.
Atlanta often focused on controlling the ball to control games this season, but as they scrap for a playoff position, the Five Stripes adopted a more forceful approach against the ball, letting Orlando City SC own it on Wednesday night before punishing them with Thiago Almada — a breakout star waiting to crash into American soccer fans’ collective awareness. Almada is a stunning player, but he’s one of many players trying to be ‘the guy’ in Atlanta, and the balance hasn’t been struck well yet.
A chance at sneaking into the playoffs, however, means Atlanta will be rocking Saturday afternoon when Philadelphia rolls into town with their second five-match winning streak in the last three months.
Jim Curtin’s men know that the only thing that can stop them is their own mentality. It has driven them past LAFC and Austin into the top spot in the Supporters’ Shield race, and now they have to maintain a Philly edge while knowing that every team in the league sees them as the biggest match of the year.
Key for the Union will be pouncing on Atlanta during build-up play so the Five Stripes can’t create isolations in the attacking half. If the Union can force loose passes in Atlanta’s defensive third and midfield, they’ll find success against a defense that has been fighting the injury bug all season. If, however, the Union don’t stay in top gear, they will be punished by one of the many attackers Atlanta can throw out against them.
A big focus for Philly will be dominating the left side of the pitch so they can push up that wing and allow the right side of their team to swing forward in support and pin back Atlanta’s wingers. This will make it far more difficult for the home team to establish connected attacks and it allows the Union’s defenders to foul in safe areas if they need to do so.
This matchup seems light years away 2019 when the Union knocked off a heavily-favored Atlanta side in Philadelphia to clinch a playoff berth. Now the tables have turned and the red-and-black are fighting for the postseason as the Union set their sites of the Eastern Conference, the Supporters’ Shield, Concacaf Champions League, and MLS Cup. Jim Curtin said his team wants it all. They’ll try to prove it Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET when they kick off in Atlanta, broadcast live on Univision, TUDN, and Twitter.