The past month has been a long and productive stretch for Atlanta United.
There’s one important bit of work remaining.
The Five Stripes will finish their run of eight games in 24 days when they host Minnesota United on Tuesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It is the finale of a run that has seen Atlanta United secure 17 of 21 points from the first seven games, with 22 goals scored and just three allowed.
The team was tied for sixth when the stretch of games started on Sept. 10. Atlanta United (15-8-8) is now in third and has a chance to tie second-place NYCFC at 56 points with a win Tuesday.
“It’s been difficult, but the team’s grinding,” captain Michael Parkhurst said. “At home, we have more energy. The crowd gives us the energy. Obviously, we’ve had a great string of results. Knowing that this is the final game in this stretch, I think we’ll be all right tomorrow.”
It won’t be easy to earn those three points.
Atlanta United will be without five key players. Striker Josef Martinez, who leads the team with 18 goals, was called up to Venezuela’s national team for World Cup qualifying games. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who has posted seven shuouts, was called up by the U.S. for its key World Cup qualifiers. He will be replaced by Kyle Reynish. Attacking midfielder Miguel Almiron, who has nine goals and 13 assists, and fullback Greg Garza, who has two goals and five assists, will miss the game because of injuries. Right fullback Anton Walkes, who has started 15 consecutive games, will be given a day off.
“Guys need to come in there and keep the level of play that we’ve had for these last seven games and show they want a bigger role toward the end of the season and playoff time,” Parkhurst said.
This isn’t the same Minnesota United (9-16-5) squad that Atlanta United defeated 6-1 in the snow for the first win in franchise history.
The Loons’ once-porous defense, which allowed 18 goals in the first four games, has settled and the offense, led by Christian Ramirez (13 goals), Kevin Molino (eight assists) and No. 1 draft pick Abu Danladi (seven goals) can trouble defenses.
Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said the biggest difference between Minnesota United when the two teams last played on March 12 and now is the same as it has been for his team: time.
Loons manager Adrian Heath has had time to work out formations, lineups and acquire more players, such as Ethan Finlay. Minnesota United has won three of its past six games, including victories over playoff hopefuls Montreal and Dallas.
“They have a point to prove against us as well,” Atlanta United’s Chris McCann said. “It’s going to be a good game, an enjoyable game.”
Atlanta United can take solace in a defense that has 11 shutouts this season, including six in the past seven games.
The defense was a rock in securing a 0-0 draw at New England on Saturday. Because his players were showing the effects of the schedule congestion, Martino elected to play more narrow, keep the fullbacks back and not press with the typical energy.
The offense had a couple of scoring chances in the first half that couldn’t be converted. The defense turned away chance after chance for New England with Parkhurst, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez throwing their bodies at shots.
“You can count on your mate to be there to back you up,” McCann said. “Hopefully we can continue that now until the playoffs.”