Atlanta United can put its foot down on the rest of the Eastern Conference with wins at NYCFC on Saturday and at Columbus on June 13.
The Five Stripes are atop the Supporters’ Shield with 29 points. NYCFC is second in the East (27 points) and Columbus is third (26).
The gap between first and sixth-place Orlando is already a sizable 10 points. If Atlanta United were to take six points from the two games, it would be tough to see them not eventually clinch a slot in the postseason for the second consecutive season.
“It’s two of the toughest games in the league,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said. “Away in NYC is the toughest game on the schedule just given the opponent and the field conditions. It’s really difficult to play there, and they play so well on their home field. It will be a tough challenge for us. It was one of our worst games last year, so we want to go out there and have a better performance this year against them. Columbus is right there, as well. We know they are perennially one of the better teams in the league. It’s going to be a tough stretch for us after the game, but we’ll be ready for it.”
Atlanta United was thoroughly beaten by NYCFC, 3-1, on the small pitch at Yankee Stadium last season. After being outplayed for most of the first half, Carlos Carmona gave Atlanta United a brief lifeline with a goal in the 39th minute. That line was cut with goals from Rodney Wallace and Maxi Moralez one minute apart in the second half.
Atlanta United fared much better at Columbus’ Mapfre Stadium, posting a 2-0 win on two goals from Hector Villalba, one of which came on a rare assist from goalkeeper Alec Kann.
Both opponents are tough at home. NYCFC is 6-0-0 at home and Columbus is 5-1-2. They also feature two of the league’s top players in NYCFC’s David Villa and Columbus’ Gyasi Zardes, who has nine goals, three behind Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez in the race for the Golden Boot. Zardes helped Columbus rally from three goals down last week to tie Toronto 3-3 and remain unbeaten in its past eight games.
Of course, Atlanta United has one game to play before it heads to the Bronx.
That game, on Wednesday against Charleston in the U.S. Open Cup, could be just as tough because the Battery are unbeaten in 11 games.
The U.S. Open Cup is a win-or-go-home scenario, adding to the pressure.
Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said on Saturday that he will use some of the team’s less experienced and/or used players in Wednesday’s game. That group includes Andrew Carleton, Miles Robinson, Brandon Vazquez, Kevin Kratz, Sal Zizzo, Mikey Ambrose, Alex Kann and Hector Villalba, if he’s healthy after sustaining a hyperextended knee two weeks ago.
Adding to the challenge of the three games is Atlanta United hasn’t played a complete game in weeks. It played a great second half against Philadelphia, which was reduced to nine men. Their first half performance was poor enough that Martino said the Union still had 11 players he could see his team losing.
“It’s good to win in multiple ways, but today wasn’t the cleanest,” Atlanta United’s Darlington Nagbe said. “We scored three goals, but we could’ve been better.”
It is part of a trend.
Atlanta United played a great second half in a 1-1 draw at New England, but failed to put away several scoring chances that would have secured all three points. It played well in spurts in a 3-1 loss to New York Red Bulls and in a 2-1 win at Orlando, as examples.
Playing well in this three-game stretch couldn’t come at a better time with the stakes at hand.
“We want to go into the World Cup break, or off weekend, with some separation,” Nagbe said.
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