The two teams went in opposite directions after their meeting that fall with the Union capturing a Supporters’ Shield after finishing 25 points clear of Atlanta in the Eastern Conference standings.
While in other leagues around the world Atlanta’s record would’ve put them in danger of relegation, the Five Stripes earned the U.S. Open Cup bid into Concacaf Champions League as the most recent winners after the competition was scrapped last year.
Now they’re back in familiar territory in the quarterfinals of the competition for the third time after beating Costa Rican club Alajuelense 2-0 on aggregate while the Union are aiming to build on a successful debut beating up on struggling Costa Rican club Saprissa 5-0 on aggregate.
“We don’t want to just be happy to be here,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said yesterday in a press conference. “While we’re proud to be here, we also want to move on, survive and advance like I always talk about.”
The survive and advance mentality is one that has served Curtin well in knockout competitions before with three U.S. Open Cup final runs under his belt, but the winless start to league play while scoring only one goal in two matches is cause for some concern ahead of a road game of this magnitude.
While the Union were the team raising a banner on Saturday in Chester, Atlanta is still a team to be feared.
“You want to test yourselves against the best and Atlanta has been one of the best in our league,” Curtin said. “I won’t say that I love coming down here and playing in front of the big crowd and how difficult they make it their fans on you but these are fun games.”
Union left back Kai Wagner sees Saturday night’s disappointing 2-1 loss at home to Inter Miami as a possible blessing in disguise for a team that looked unstoppable in a 4-0 thrashing in the second leg of their Round of 16 matchup with Saprissa.
“It could also be like a good thing that everybody wants more now that everybody knows that we have to step a little bit up now,” Wagner said. “We still played a good game against Miami, we maybe just have to score a second goal and then the game is done.”
Curtin had what appears to be his first choice lineup on the field Saturday night and super sub Ilsinho as a weapon off the bench, but a groin injury to the veteran playmaker derailed the Union’s late attempt to find an equalizer. Ilsinho didn’t make the trip to Atlanta and will likely be out for a while during a busy run of games that includes NYCFC at home on the weekend and the second leg against Atlanta three nights later.
Jamiro Monteiro has been the focal point of the offense — he has the only league goal and has been involved in all but one of the Union’s five Champions League goals so far — but Curtin didn’t say whether he’d keep him at the No. 10 or re-insert Anthony Fontana into the starting lineup.
“Anthony is still a guy in the run of play that we have to get on the ball more whether it’s as a sub or a starter,” Curtin said. “We all know how good he is around the goal but in terms of touching the ball and making an impact on the game, that maybe hasn’t been as much.”
How to Watch
Where: Mercedez Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Georgia
When: Tuesday, April 27, 8:06 p.m. kickoff
TV: FS1 / TUDN
Streaming: FoxSports, Concacaf App