Atlanta United back in control of Supporters’ Shield

Gressel: ‘This is ours to lose’

Atlanta United's 3-1 win against Columbus on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium wasn't important because of Josef Martinez's MLS record-tying goal, or Hector Villalba's goal-of-the-year candidate, or Miguel Almiron breaking his scoring drought.

No, Sunday’s win was important because it earned the Five Stripes three valuable points in their race against New York Red Bulls, NYCFC and Dallas for the Supporters’ Shield, a trophy given to the team that finishes the regular season with the most points.

While Atlanta United’s front office has earned a few baubles, the team has yet to win any trophies for on-field performance. The MLS Cup is the goal. The Supporters’ Shield would be a nice bookend.

“Those three points are very, very big,” midfielder Julian Gressel said. “Obviously with the opponents coming up for us, that was probably the hardest game in terms of what’s on the schedule. Obviously, no game is easy. Especially at home and to send a message out to the two New York teams that this is ours to lose. You have to beat us in order to win the Supporter’s Shield, so that was huge in that sense.”

Atlanta United leads MLS with 51 points. New York Red Bulls have 48 having one played one fewer game. NYCFC has 47 and Dallas has 45 having played one fewer game.

The Red Bulls, which passed Atlanta United for tops in the East for less than 24 hours last week, will play NYCFC at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday. A draw wouldn’t be the worst thing for Atlanta United.

“We talked before the game that this was the first time in a while that our name wasn’t first on the standings, and we wanted to make sure that coming out of this game, going into tonight, our name was back on top, and now it is, and we feel good about that,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said. “We know it’s going to be a fight for the rest of the season, but we want to make sure that our name is at the top.”

Atlanta United has the easiest schedule of the contenders. Of its nine games, just two will come against teams above the red line in either the Eastern or Western Conferences. One will be against Real Salt Lake at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sept. 22. The other will be at Red Bulls on Sept. 30.

Atlanta United’s remaining games will present challenges. Orlando City, the team’s next game on Friday in Florida, still has a slim chance to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. D.C. United, which Atlanta United will play at new Audi Field on Sept. 2, is unbeaten in its past five with four wins and is fighting to get above the red line. Then comes a tough road trips with games against two of the league’s worst teams, Colorado and San Jose. The remaining home games are against free-falling New England and Chicago. The finale will be at Toronto, which also has a slim chance of making the playoffs to try to defend its championship.

“I think from here on out every week, every result is going to be important,” Villalba said. “Now we know it’s only a three point race and four points with New York City, so we just have to take it week by week. We know it’s going to be close.”