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MLS Cup not on the line for Atlanta United ... yet

The MLS Cup is not on the line ... but it could be in seven months.

Atlanta United hosts Sporting KC, the best in the East versus the best in the West, on Wednesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The importance of the next three matches is not limited to the next.

Getting positive results from the next three games will be important for Atlanta United’s season, manager Gerardo Martino and captain Michael Parkhurst said on Tuesday.

The Five Stripes (7-1-1), the team with the most points in the MLS, will host Sporting KC (6-2-2), the team with the most points in the West. That’s followed by a game at Orlando, winners of six consecutive and one of a few teams that won’t play on Wednesday, on Sunday, and then a game against the red-hot New York Red Bulls on May 20.

Taking nine points will go a long way toward cementing Atlanta United’s status as the favorite for the Supporter’s Shield as well as the MLS Cup.

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“We know we are in good form right now,” captain Michael Parkhurst said. “We would like to keep it going for as long a possible. We know we aren’t going undefeated the rest of the season. It’s not going to happen … likely.

“We want to for sure win all of our home games and Wednesday is another good opportunity for us.”

First is Peter Vermes and Sporting KC.

Along with Columbus, Sporting KC is one of two teams that has the most defined style, and is one that Martino said he appreciates.

KC is strong defensively, the best team in MLS in goals allowed going back to the start of the 2017 season, but this season has scored almost as many goals as league leader Atlanta United. Parkhurst said KC is committed to its defensive play, rarely gets caught in one-on-one situations, cover each other well and features two of the league’s best central defenders in Ike Opara and Matt Besler.

The difference last season and this season is how well the team is playing on offense. The addition of wingers Johnny Russell and Khiry Shelton, and the development of homegrown player and forward Daniel Salloi, has transformed an offense that last year was moribund with 40 goals scored in 34 games. The team this season is tied for second with New York Red Bulls for goals scored (21), second only to Atlanta United (23).

March 11, 2018 Atlanta: A Atlanta United fan toasts the team as they take on the D.C. United during their home opener in a MLS soccer game on Sunday, March 11, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com (ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton)

“Russell is playing really well on the wing,” Parkhurst said. “Dynamic player. Good on the dribble, even with two guys on him.”

To secure three points, Atlanta United will need to overcome the slow starts it has gotten off to in the past two games, and Martino must decide what to do with a defense that could be missing Franco Escobar (chest) and Chris McCann (hamstring).

Martino could overcome the possible absences by either playing Miles Robinson or Sal Zizzo as a third centerback in the 3-5-2 formation that he has used during the team’s eight-game unbeaten streak. Or, he could switch back to the 4-3-3 formation in which the centerbacks would be Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez.

Changing the formation may also help spark the team in the first half on Wednesday because a 4-3-3 will enable Martino to start for the first team this season the team’s arsenal of offensive players: Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco, Hector Villalba and Darlington Nagbe.

The Five Stripes were stymied two games ago by a Montreal defense that was committed to playing as many as 10 men behind the ball. It took 70 minutes, but Atlanta United eventually broke through for a 4-1 win.

Instead of sitting back, Chicago pressed Atlanta United in last week’s game. Parkhurst said they expected a press, but the tenacity of it was surprising. Still, Martino figured out a solution and Atlanta United again broke through to take a 2-1 win.

Parkhurst said the team can’t get off to a slow start on Wednesday in what could be a potential MLS Cup preview.

“We are going to get everybody’s best, especially in the beginning of games,” he said. “We can’t take any minutes off against Kansas City.”

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