Because of good fortune, Atlanta United has yet to face a team during its five-game winning streak that would be considered strong.
Sporting KC had lots of injuries. Toronto was missing its best striker. Orlando was missing Nani and Sacha Kljestan. Colorado and Vancouver are … Colorado and Vancouver.
The New York Red Bulls, Sunday’s opponent and the opportunity for Atlanta United to post its sixth consecutive shutout, have won three of four, are talented and somewhat healthy, but still a team that the Five Stripes know are going to be ready because they have always been ready when the teams play at Red Bull Arena.
“One of the things about playing at Red Bulls, we learned lessons there, even late in season last year, if you aren’t ready for the fight, if you aren’t ready to put everything out there on the line, they are going to come wave after wave, right down your throat,” Atlanta United’s Michael Parkhurst said. “You end up using a ton of energy defending that way. We have to give everything we have in this game. If you don’t, you’ve basically already lost against the Red Bulls.”
Parkhurst said he had never before faced a press with the intensity that the Red Bulls brought in last season’s 2-0 loss Sept. 30. The loss could have been much worse. There were minutes where Atlanta United couldn’t get out of its own half.
And that ferociousness came from a Red Bulls team playing without striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, who is expected to miss Sunday’s game, and midfielder Tyler Adams, who was sold. New York may on Sunday be missing centerback Aaron Long, the reigning MLS Defender of the Year.
The defeat opened the door for New York to pip Atlanta United for the Supporters’ Shield. The Red Bulls, of course did. Atlanta United got the next laugh when it eliminated New York from the playoffs on its way to winning the MLS Cup.
Which brings the two teams to Sunday.
Atlanta United got off to a rough start in the league, failing to post a win in its first four. A change in formation and an influx of healthy players have helped the team win six of its past seven and has a shutout streak of 456 minutes. The Red Bulls won just one of their first seven, so it is still two points below the playoff line in the East.
“I think we know the history there, certainly,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “I think if you look at where they are at and the season they’ve had, and the starts we’ve had and kind of turning things around a little bit, pick up some points. I think those two reasons alone will make for an interesting game.
“When you add in the history side, we know it’s a difficult place to play. A difficult place to get a result. We will certainly have to be at our best on Sunday.”
Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said he has the feeling that the game may be more important than others in this stretch of eight days in 28 days when he was speaking to Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra about the roster and player rotation two weeks ago.
It seems that de Boer planned ahead, not taking Parkhurst and Darlington Nagbe to Wednesday’s 1-0 win against Vancouver. He also held back centerback Miles Robinson and midfielder Julian Gressel, not starting them but bringing them off the bench to close out the game. De Boer said Friday that all healthy players will be considered available for Sunday.
De Boer is hoping for a well-rested, energetic Atlanta United because he said the Red Bulls are going to bring energy. He said winning second balls will be a key to avoiding “problems.”
Really, that’s nothing new for Atlanta United when it plays the Red Bulls, one of three teams it has yet to defeat in the regular season. The others are Seattle and Cincinnati, which is in its first year in MLS.
“It’s always been a difficult game,” Guzan said. “You know it’s going to be difficult. When are you able to get a result, it means that much more.”
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