Rested and recharged after a rare weekend off, Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said they are approaching the regular season’s final two games as must-wins.
The team leads New York Red Bulls by one point in the race for the Supporters’ Shield. Any combination of six points resulting from two Atlanta United wins, or one Atlanta United win and a Red Bulls loss, or two losses by Red Bulls, for example, in the last two games will result in the Five Stripes winning their first trophy.
Six points. That’s it. Ten months of work to receive its first reward.
“We’ve worked hard for many, many months,” Parkhurst said. “Some guys are nicked up, some guys are tired. This is the time of the year when you have to refocus. Need to make sure that ‘Hey, this is what we’ve been working for, these are the fun games. This is when you go out and make history.’ We’ve got that great opportunity. We’ve put in a lot of good days, a lot of good months to be in this position and we don’t want to let go of it.”
The first round of deciding games are Sunday. Atlanta United will host Chicago, which has already been eliminated from playoff consideration but is 2-2-2 in its past six. Atlanta United will finish the regular season at Toronto, which has also been eliminated from playoff consideration.
“You look at as they are out of the playoffs, what do they have to play for, but they are all professionals,” Parkhurst said. “They all want to win games. A lot of them may be playing for their jobs for next year, so them and Toronto are both going to be tough games.”
The Red Bulls will host Philadelphia, which is fighting to secure the third spot in the East.
Both games will start at 3 p.m. Parkhurst said Atlanta United’s players won’t know what is going on in New York’s game until after their game is complete. Then, should Atlanta United win, Parkhurst said they will quickly want to know what is happening in Chester, Pa.
Atlanta United’s task will be made more tough by the expected absence of Miguel Almiron, who suffered a hamstring strain in the win against New England two weeks ago. The team may also be without Hector Villalba, who reportedly picked up a minor injury while training with Paraguay. Almiron has 12 goals and 14 assists this season. Villalba has seven goals and nine assists.
Still, the Five Stripes, with Josef Martinez, Julian Gressel, Darlington Nagbe and Ezequiel Barco, should have enough on offense to pressure Chicago.
Parkhurst points out that the Fire did come to Mercedes-Benz Stadium earlier this season and defeat Atlanta United 1-0 in the U.S. Open Cup. Atlanta United used a makeshift lineup that included just three regular starters: Almiron, Villalba and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez.
Manager Gerardo Martino, obviously, isn’t going to do that on Sunday.
“We are playing for our first objective, which is to win the Supporters’ Shield,” Gonzalez Pirez said. “It would be really important for the club. It would be a trophy for the club and then we are doing to take these two games like they are first and second leg playoff games.”
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