It’s hard to underplay the significance of tonight’s Philadelphia Union game in a top-of-the-Eastern-Conference showdown with Atlanta United. The Five Stripes collected two more trophies since the teams last met and have overcome early season fixture congestion and new coach woes to once again take their place at the top of the conference. But there’s a reason the Union are still tied on points with Atlanta and tonight they get to show the league how seriously they should be taken as a contender for MLS Cup.
I caught up with Sydney Hunte at our fellow SB Nation site Dirty South Soccer to get caught on the Five Stripes ahead of tonight’s clash.
What’s your expectation for the team playing on the road after winning a trophy Tuesday night? Do you worry about a hangover or a dip in form?
I expect there to be a good deal of fatigue across the lineup. Atlanta have had a good deal of matches crammed into the last few weeks (including Campeones Cup) so there was always going to be tired legs among the club as a result. The good news for them: after Saturday, it has no matches to play for two weeks, although several players (Miles Robinson, Brad Guzan, Justin Meram and Ezequiel Barco) will be on international duty. Of course, there’s the potential that a few of them won’t see a great amount of time while away, but as a whole, the two-week layoff will be very welcome.
That being said, I don’t know if I’m truly concerned about a hangover, per se, but this has been a club that has been susceptible to go into international breaks like this on a low note. The good news is that they’ve rounded into strong form away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium and have a chance to really capitalize on that on Saturday.
Atlanta has shown this season that coming back from an MLS Cup win and balancing Champions League in the early season, all with a new head coach, can be a challenge. As you mentioned, both teams are in a very different place than when they last played to a 1-1 draw. What’s been the big change for Atlanta and how have they been able to climb the standings and win two trophies along the way?
I think switching to a 3-5-2 has helped Atlanta rediscover the form it enjoyed in 2017 and 2018. As we saw in the draw earlier this season, Atlanta was very deliberate with possession and, let’s be honest, were really devoid of ideas in the attack. And the sense of frustration was felt not just in the stands, but in the locker room - with players like Josef Martinez and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez a couple of players that were critical of the change away from the club’s trademark free-flowing attacking style, while a rift between Frank de Boer and Pity Martinez came out in the open.
While the 3-5-2 switch may have been out of necessity thanks to Brek Shea’s injury, it’s worked: Justin Meram came in from Columbus and has fit this team like a glove, while Julian Gressel has been able to return to a right wing back position, where he’s excelled throughout his brief career. That’s been one of the catalysts behind Atlanta being able to find itself at the top of the East standings and win both the Open Cup and Campeones Cup to boot. You obviously can’t discount Josef Martinez, who has been on a tremendous run of form (12 straight MLS matches with a goal) thanks in part to that formation change; a player like him thrives in a system like that, and it’s shown.
Defense has been a big part of Atlanta’s success. In the 3-5-2, with Meram and Gressel as wingbacks, it allows for defenders like Franco Escobar (or Florentin Pogba when Escobar’s injured), Miles Robinson and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez to stay at home and play to their strengths. One player in particular that has benefited is Robinson, who has developed into one of the league’s top center backs; he’s been rewarded with a call-up to the U.S. men’s national team for their September friendlies. Escobar and Gonzalez Pirez certainly wear their emotions on their sleeve (especially Gonzalez Pirez, as you saw in the Open Cup final), but on their day they’re as good as a defensive group as there is in MLS. Pogba, who signed for Atlanta coming into 2019, has been a pleasant surprise when inserted into the lineup.
I root against Atlanta as a rule but I’m never sad seeing Jeff Larentowicz add to his trophy case. How integral would you say our Philly connection to the Five Stripes has been for the team over this impressive trophy run?
Indespensible. Larentowicz hasn’t received as much playing time as he’s seen over the past year or so as Eric Remedi’s taken over that holding midfielder role, but having a player like him in the locker room to provide leadership and be that coach-like influence for the younger players is a big plus. I did mention that he hasn’t seen a great deal of time this season, but he’s slid right in during times when Remedi has been injured. (And he may be good for a screamer of a goal every once in a while, as we saw in Campeones Cup) He’s certainly at the twilight of his career having just turned 36, but without his hard-nosed, determined play over the first several years of this club’s existence, I don’t think they’re anywhere near where they are right now - he’ll be missed when he does decide to hang them up.
I saw Barco is expected to miss the game. Are there any other key absences or injury questions that could impact the game? What’s your projected starting XI and score prediction?
Aside from Barco (officially listed as questionable, but I doubt they risk playing him with the international break looming), there’s no major injuries to report outside of Brek Shea (out for the season; leg injury). That said, here’s my projected starting XI for the game:
Forwards: Josef Martinez, Tito Villalba
Midfielders: Justin Meram, Pity Martinez, Eric Remedi, Darlington Nagbe, Julian Gressel
Defense: Franco Escobar, Miles Robinson, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez
As for a prediction...this has the feel of a 1-0 match to me for the reasons I touched on earlier. I think Josef Martinez nabs one to extend his league goal-scoring streak to 13 and the Five Stripes leave town with 3 points in tow.