On Saturday night in Utah, Atlanta United will play its fourth straight road game. When the trip started, many looked at this match against Real Salt Lake as the most likely win of the four. However, RSL is on a two-game winning streak after changing managers and has one of the top young players in the league right now featuring for them in Brooks Lennon. Can the Five Stripes overcome a newly confident squad while shaking off last week’s tough result in Montreal?
RSL’s front four is a very dangerous attacking group. Yura Movsisyan is the spearhead to the offense, a complete forward who is just as comfortable dropping into the midfield to join in possession as he is poaching goals in the penalty area. A heel injury slowed him down late last season, but the Armenian international looks to be fully recovered with four goals in seven games so far in 2017. Albert Rusnak is a 22-year-old attacking midfielder who is part of the Slovakian national team. His passing has been a key so far for RSL, leading the team with three assists. On the wings, youngsters Sebastian Saucedo and Brooks Lennon have flanked Movsisyan as the team tries to get its wingers forward more into the attack. Both star for the U.S. U20 national team that will be headed to the World Cup later this year.
New manager Mike Petke has only had the team for a few weeks, but his imprint has been felt quickly. A scrappy defender during his time in MLS, he found quick success as a manager with his hometown New York Red Bulls. He guided them to the Supporters’ Shield in 2014 and back-to-back playoff appearances. However, in a move that shocked and upset many fans, Petke was dismissed by management after the 2015 season. He bounced back by joining the Real Monarchs, RSL’s lower division club, this season. When Jeff Cassar was fired last month, Petke was the obvious choice to take the reins. While the system of play will take time to implement, Petke has given the players confidence and instilled a never-say-die attitude that had been missing in the group. Last week’s come-from-behind 2-1 win on the road in Colorado is a testament to the change in attitude at RSL.
The Five Stripes head into Salt Lake City buoyed by the news that center back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez will be available for selection. His red card suspension was rescinded by MLS this week and he will not have to miss Saturday’s game. Winger Yamil Asad also returns to the lineup after missing last week due to a suspension from his red card two weeks ago in Toronto. Striker Josef Martinez and winger Jacob Peterson will be missing due to injury, and midfielders Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin are away currently with the U.S. U17 national team at the CONCACAF Championships.
United will look to counter RSL’s explosive attacking unit with one of their own. Likely starters Kenwyne Jones, Tito Villalba, Miguel Almiron, and Asad have all found the back of the net this season and their speed will be a difficult match-up for Salt Lake’s defense. Injuries this season have forced constant reshuffling of the RSL backline and pace is not one of their strong suits. Almiron will likely have a battle in the middle of the field with long-time U.S. national team defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman that could go a long way in deciding the outcome of the match. United will need to create more opportunities in front of goal than they have been in recent games, they have been outshot by wide margins in the last two games in Toronto and Montreal.
- RSL’s Brooks Lennon comes into this match on fire and he must be contained for Atlanta to get a result. He is among the best dribblers in the league, and is equally influential in creating opportunities for others as scoring them himself. He has been playing on the right side, but he likes to cut across the field on his favored left foot.
- Atlanta’s Tyrone Mears missed last week’s game due to an ankle injury, but he returned to training this week and should be available Saturday night. Mark Bloom played well in his place in Montreal.
- RSL has scored seven goals in their last three games. Petke’s impact thus far has been in giving his players more confidence in the attack. They are also trying to generate offense through the wings more than before, with Lennon and Saucedo heavily influential in recent games.
- Ecuadorian winger Joao Plata is recovering from a quadriceps injury and returned to training this week. He would likely replace Saucedo in RSL’s starting lineup if he is ready to go on Saturday. Homegrown winger Jordan Allen could also return this week from injury.
- Rusnak has not generated the headlines that Almiron, Villalba, and Martinez have for Atlanta, but he is in the same mold. He is a 22-year-old young Designated Player that RSL expects to build around for some time. As an attacking central midfielder, he has big shoes to fill in Salt Lake replacing legend Javier Morales, but his early performances point to him being up to the job. If he is allowed time on the ball in open space, Rusnak will punish Atlanta on Saturday.
- Atlanta’s press could be dialed up a few extra notches on Saturday night. RSL is next-to-last in MLS in passing completion percentage. If Atlanta can force turnovers and get out to an early lead, it could shake up a squad that is still figuring out its identity under a new manager.