Tired Atlanta United ready to host Real Salt Lake

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Credit: Maciek Gudrymowicz

Definitely not rested, but certainly ready, Atlanta United will host Real Salt Lake on Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

More than 70,000 are expected to be at the game. The roof should be open for only the second time this season. Atlanta United, which leads MLS with 60 points, will try to continue its march toward the Supporters’ Shield and can clinch a bye in the first round of the playoffs if it wins and NYCFC doesn’t defeat Montreal.

Good stuff, right?

If only it wasn’t the team’s third game in eight days, and second in four days after Wednesday’s thrilling 4-3 win at San Jose that was secured by Josef Martinez’s 30th goal this season in the fifth minute of six minutes of stoppage time.

“It’s tough being away from home for a week, but luckily we came back with six points,” Atlanta United’s Hector Villalba said.

Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said Friday that the players are tired after being on the road for a week, which ended with a charter flight from San Francisco that touched down in Atlanta about 8 a.m. Thursday.

“All we have to do after a long trip and a short time is get the guys recovered and then choose the 11 that we think are the best for the match,” Martino said.

 

Villalba said he wasn’t going to train Friday. Instead, he was going to recover in the gym at the practice facility in Marietta.

“It’s just all about recovery,” he said.

While the legs may not be as willing as they were as they were a week ago, the team has the confidence to draw from against Real Salt Lake after putting together wildly different performances in picking up six more points on the road last week. Those wins pushed Atlanta United to 10 wins on the road, setting an MLS record in the post-shootout era, and 32 points, which ties the post-shootout era record.

In the first game, Atlanta United blitzed Colorado 3-0 with three goals in the first half. The final 45 minutes were an exercise in expending as little energy as possible.

The next game, four days later, wasn’t as clean in California. The team fell behind 1-0 quickly and then turned its aggression dial up to 11 as if they could score a two-goal goal to take back the lead. The team lost its shape on offense and lost quite a few one-on-one battles on defense. San Jose’s lead quickly grew to 2-0.

“We are a team that maybe isn’t accustomed to going down so early in the match,” Martino said. “When it happens, it’s a learning experience.

“We have a lot of will and motivation to get back in the game, but it makes us a little more disorganized.”

The team started to find its bearings just before half on a splendid goal from Hector Villalba. But San Jose added another, and then the Five Stripes answered with three of their own to take the win.

“I’m satisfied with the reaction and mentality of the team, but not the amount of errors we made in the second half,” Martino said.

After the game and then again Friday, Martino said had Atlanta United been playing one of the league’s better teams it could have lost by multiple goals.

Well, they may find out Saturday because Real Salt Lake may be the best example of better.

They are in fifth in the West with 45 points, largely based upon a 10-1-4 record at Rio Tinto Stadium. The team is 3-9-2 on the road, but is coming off consecutive wins against struggling Houston, 2-1, and at abject Colorado, 6-0.

With Albert Rusnak, Joao Plata and Jefferson Savarino, Real Salt Lake have the ability to light up Atlanta United if the team loses its shape as badly as it did for stretches against San Jose. RSL became the first team in MLS history to score six goals in back-to-back games. That started three games ago at the Rapids and ended against the L.A. Galaxy.

Martino said the key to avoiding the same mistakes made at San Jose is a mixture of things.

“Comes down to a little more work, a little more concentration on the field and a little bit of that mental strength knowing that in the final part of the season that’s when you can least afford to make those mistakes,” he said.

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