It’s been six weeks since Atlanta United had a home match at Bobby Dodd Stadium and the Five Stripes will finally return on Sunday to host D.C. United. The Black and Red were the poster club for early MLS success, winning three of the first four MLS Cups. They have not lifted the trophy at the end of the season since 2004 and Ben Olsen’s squad has seen their season-ending point total decrease in each of the past three years.
D.C. comes to Atlanta for their third straight match on the road. They lost at Red Bull Arena to New York 2-0 on April 16 and drew 2-2 in New England last weekend. Jared Jeffrey and Sebastian Le Toux scored last week to give D.C. a 2-1 lead, but an early second half goal from the Revolution’s Juan Agudelo earned a point for New England. D.C is still seeking its first win on the road in three games, they have only scored the two goals last week away from home while conceding eight times.
The Five Stripes make their return home after a four game road trip that can be considered a success. Draws on the road against last year’s two MLS Cup participants started the trip, a disappointing last minute loss in Montreal was canceled out by a 3-1 win last weekend over Real Salt Lake. Tito Villalba scored three times on the trip to lead the Atlanta attack that is still without striker Josef Martinez. He is expected to be out for a few more weeks.
Atlanta’s high powered attack is in stark contrast to D.C.’s anemic offense this season. The new kids on the block have scored 17 goals while the MLS originals only have six. Atlanta’s speed will be key to their chances on Sunday against a D.C. defense that has constantly been reshuffled this season due to injury. Usual starter and U.S. national team center back Steve Birnbaum will likely miss Sunday’s match due to a concussion sustained in the New York match. Left back Taylor Kemp could return to the D.C. lineup this week after missing out last week. Veterans Bobby Boswell and Sean Franklin provide a great deal of MLS experience.
That veteran experience is helpful, but it is not exactly fleet of foot. That lack of speed can be exploited by Atlanta United on Sunday afternoon with Villalba and Miguel Almiron among the fastest players in the league. D.C. has allowed twelve goals this season and their leaky defense might not withstand an Atlanta onslaught. With Martinez still out, Kenwyne Jones is likely in line for his third straight start. While Jones does not have the same speed as Martinez, he provides a physical presence that allows the team to beat a pressing opponent by skipping the midfield build-up.
Left back Greg Garza and central midfielder Jeff Larentowicz are battling injury for the Five Stripes and will be evaluated closer to kickoff. Mark Bloom and either Julian Gressel or Chris McCann would be likely replacements if needed.
- D.C. United is a team that can be forced into mistakes. Their passing completion percentage is last in MLS at 70.7 percent. Atlanta’s pressing style should be able to take advantage of this and cause dangerous turnovers.
- Due to the above numbers, D.C. struggles to retain possession. With only 45 percent of the possession in their matches so far, Atlanta will have an opportunity to build attacks that they have not seen in recent weeks.
- With Atlanta United’s suffocating attack to open halves, D.C. could be in trouble. They conceded early goals in the second half of each of their last two games, while Atlanta scored goals in the first two minutes of the second half in two of their last three games.
- The game will likely be decided by transition play. D.C. likes to get many players forward in the attack, at the expense of an organized defensive setup. With Atlanta’s lightning quick counterattack, D.C. will have to be more organized in transition than they have shown an ability to be so far this season.
- Ben Olsen will have some difficult decisions to make on Sunday because D.C.’s weaknesses perfectly align with Atlanta’s strengths.