July 21, 2018 - Atlanta United forward Brandon Vazquez (left) is fouled by D.C. United midfielder Chris Durkin (21) during the second half in a MLS soccer game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, July 21, 2018. Three more goals from Josef Martinez set a new MLS record lifted Atlanta United to a 3-1 victory over D.C. United on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Atlanta United ready for another tough stretch in MLS

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Atlanta United is about to start a stretch of a lot of games in a few days.

Starting with Wednesday’s game at Toronto, Atlanta United will play 10 games in 38 days. It recently finished a stretch of eight games in 28 days that started in May and ended in June. Atlanta United picked up 18 points to put itself squarely in the running for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Its average of 1.73 points per game is the second-best behind Philadelphia (1.82).

After that stretch, the team just finished a “break” that started June 2, but included two U.S. Open Cup games that included the disaster that was the trip to Charleston, during which the team got a physical and mental reset, as well as two wins and uncovering of Brandon Vazquez.

Now, Atlanta United seems ready to try to chase down the Union.

“Time away always make your hungrier,” midfielder Darlington Nagbe said.

The challenge of trying starts with Toronto, the site of what was last season’s biggest disappointment for the team. With a chance to win the Supporters’ Shield on the last day of the regular season, Atlanta United was played off the field by a ragged but determined Toronto team that had long before been eliminated from postseason consideration.

“I hadn’t thought about it,” Nagbe said.

As was the case last season, Toronto again is struggling. The 2017 MLS champs are in seventh place in the East with 18 points, but are winless in their past eight since defeating Orlando 2-0 on May 4. The team will be missing two Designated Players, striker Jozy Altidore and midfielder Michael Bradley, who are with the U.S. national team for the Gold Cup, and midfielder Jonathan Osorio, who was called up by Canada for the same competition.

“They are like a wounded animal and wounded animals are dangerous,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said.

But the team still has Alejando Pozuelo, who leads the team in goals (5) and assists (8).

“The squad they can put up is a decent squad,” de Boer said. “Pozuelo is the main star. We have to be really prepared.”

Atlanta United also won’t be at full strength. The team will be without striker Josef Martinez, who is with Venezuela at the Copa America, and midfielders Hector Villalba and Ezequiel Barco, who have ligament injuries.

Vazquez will start in place of Martinez, according to de Boer. It will be his first start in MLS. Vazquez has scored four goals in two U.S. Open Cup games. De Boer describes Vazquez’s work rate in games and training as fantastic. Should Vazquez play well, he may also start Saturday’s game at Montreal. Martinez likely won’t return until at least the July 3 game at Chicago. 

“He’s been working tremendously hard, not just in attack but defensively as well,” Nagbe said. 

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