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First 15 minutes will be key for Philadelphia Union to set tone in second leg against Atlanta United

The Union are up 3-0 but need to clamp down the Atlanta attack early

MLS: Concacaf Champions League-Philadelphia Union at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Up by three goals after a stunning second half display in Atlanta last week, the Philadelphia Union return home tonight with a great chance to secure a spot in the Concacaf Champions League semifinals.

The Union stunned the Mercedes-Benz Stadium crowd last Tuesday night that was buzzing with a bright start for the Five Stripes with three second half goals that has them in the driver’s seat to advance. But in a knockout competition, even a three-goal lead feels like less of a sure thing even after the Union limited NYCFC to one goal playing down a man for 74 minutes in their 2-0 loss on Saturday night.

Head coach Jim Curtin, who has a long history of success in knockout competitions dating back even to his academy days when he won the 2012 Generation adidas Cup, said he plans to approach tonight’s match in 15-minute increments.

“Certainly the first 15 minutes is probably the most important for setting the tone of what the game is going to look like,” he said yesterday. “Starting the right way is is critical.”

An early goal for an attack that has outscored opponents 8-0 through the first three CCL matches in club history would likely be curtains for Atlanta, but the defensive side of things will be far more important. Atlanta sent wave after wave of attack in the first game and wore down trying to get a ball past reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake.

Two of the players in the lineup last week — Jürgen Damm and Ezequiel Barco — are out injured but Josef Martinez has a history of hurting the Union with 7 goals in 8 appearances even if he’s still rusty after missing nearly all of the 2020 season. The Union will be without Jose Martinez, who is suspended in CCL for yellow card accumulation so look for Leon Flach to drop back either as the six in a diamond or pairing with Alejandro Bedoya as holding midfielders in a 4-2-3-1.

“We know that Atlanta is a high quality opponent that likes to have the ball, they’re good offensively, they really open you up,” Curtin said. “Both teams will be a little bit short handed I believe and on very short rest, which makes it difficult for both teams but in our home stadium, we always like to be proactive and not reactive.”

Blake and his teammates know the threat of playing Atlanta but even up three goals they are approaching the game as they normally do a knockout match: with a survive and advance attitude.

“We just have to enjoy the moment and keep going,” Blake said.

Kickoff is scheduled for 8:06 p.m. but there are scattered thunderstorms in the forecast so even if the game goes the Union’s way things could still get interesting weather-wise down in Chester. The match will be broadcast live on FS1 and can be streamed on the FoxSports and Concacaf apps.