U in Preview — Matchday 27: Atlanta Versus Philadelphia

Down, but still (somehow) not out, the Philadelphia Union have returned home after a demoralizing road trip. Jim Curtin’s side are set to square off against visiting Atlanta United at Talen Energy Stadium on Saturday.

Saturday night will be the final home match of the Summer for Curtin’s boys, including their first ever meeting against Gerardo Martino’s flashy Atlanta outfit.

Although just five points separates the two sides, the Union have played three more matches, while the two clubs have had two, totally opposite campaigns thus far. Here’s a current look at Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference table.

Let’s get right to it, shall we?

PHILADELPHIA (8 W, 12 L, 6 D; 30 pts)

Rather than attempt to put the latest road trip into words, here’s a group of Queen’s Park Rangers’ supporters summing up the Union’s form away from home this season:

Juuuust when it looks like the Union were about to grind out a 2-1 result at Avaya Stadium, Josh Yaro brought (or rather chopped) down former Philadelphia midfielder, Shea Salinas in the box. Chris Wondolowski then calmly finished from the spot to knick a point for the home side and send everyone on Union Twitter into a nervous breakdown.

In That’s So Union fashion, the Philadelphia Union, with help from within their own ranks, failed to pick up all three points once again, while Yaro effectively showed why he’s still a ways away from being a regular in Curtin’s team.

And then there was Wednesday. Put simply, the Union were outclassed by not only the best team in the Eastern Conference, but the League itself. Some would go as far to argue one of the best teams in CONCACAF, at the moment.

Although the latter remains to be seen, even the most casual onlooker could point out that the Union were visibly inferior at BMO Field on Wednesday night, and to be fair, they have been for the majority of this season on the road.

Fortunately for the Union, they’ve been better in Chester this year, especially against visiting teams outside of the Québec Province.

Yes, home matches are supposed to be a given three points in most domestic leagues, especially in MLS. But while the Union are certainly not perfect, they have faired pretty well at TES this season.

They’ve dropped just three matches apart from their woeful loss against Montréal earlier this month, and the majority of goals scored this season (31) have come at home (23, to be exact).

CJ Sapong is the obvious player the visitors need to keep tabs on.

Sapong currently leads the Union in goals with 12, while the majority of those goals have been fired in at home. Atlanta’s backline, which has undoubtedly been their weakest link throughout this year, will have their hands full once again on Saturday.

At the other end, Jack Elliot has been one of the lone bright spots for the Union, in what is shaping up to be another gloomy MLS campaign. Elliot is good for fifth in the League for blocks, and is a sure candidate for Rookie of the Year.

Elliot versus Atlanta midfielder, Julian Gressel, another ROY favorite, should be an interesting matchup that fans should keep a close eye on throughout Saturday’s match.

On the injury front, the Union seem to have finally caught a break.

Nothing has really changed, apart from Fabian Herbers and Maurice Edu. Herbers continues to recover from sports’ hernia surgery, while Edu is slowly making his return to the field, after going 30 minutes for Bethlehem Steel FC last week.

Of note: Oguchi Onyewu, Ilsinho and John McCarthy are all listed as questionable, but are expected to be in the 18.  

Positives aside, the Union are running out of time. They are 0-2-1 in their last three matches, while clubs once below them in the table (ahem, Montréal) have switched into second gear.

ATLANTA (10 W, 8 L, 5 D; 35 pts)

Atlanta, led by their young South American contingent, have impressed many people  in their inaugural season.

Martino’s side boasts one of the more potent attacks in Major League Soccer, one that has put 42 goals (and counting) in the back of opponents’ nets thus far into the current campaign.

Argentinian forward, Hector Villalba leads the Georgian outfit with 10 goals. Venezuelan Josef Martinez has bagged nine, while Paraguayan midfield maestro, Miguel Almiron claims eight to his name.

Atlanta has played eye-catching football in their first go in MLS. Now, their transfer dealings and willingness to tap into new markets, such as South America, serves as a new model for success for other clubs around the league, including the Union (or at lest it should).

But despite their early success, Atlanta find themselves stalled, stuck in seventh place in the East and a point behind surging Montréal.

Martino’s men haven’t won since July, and recently dropped a 1-0 result to Eastern Conference bottom feeder, DC United, after suffering a Michael Parkhurst own goal.

Although their form has taken a hit recently, they’ll bring a lot of firepower and flair with them to Talen Energy Stadium on Saturday, which should be near full capacity to see Atlanta’s budding stars mentioned above.

On the injury front, Atlanta is nearing full health.

Backup goalkeeper, Alex Kann is out with a quad injury, while defender, Mark Bloom and Trinidadian forward, Kenwyne Jones are both listed as questionable.

Of note: Martinez is also questionable for Saturday. He is listed as having a “foot injury.”  

FINAL THOUGHTS

After another demoralizing road trip, it’s understandable for fans to struggle to get up for Saturday’s match. Especially considering the Union are pretty much guaranteed at this point to miss out on the playoffs.

But Saturday should be different (should be).

Atlanta is a high-flying team that is exciting to watch. If you are a fan of MLS in general, you will know that when other teams play Atlanta, they are forced to try and play at their speed and level.

MEANING THE UNION MIGHT ACTUALLY BE FUN TO WATCH ON SATURDAY.

Jokes aside, the Union will either need to weather the storm for the first 15 minutes, or try to match Atlanta’s work rate. Fans will probably expect the former, but look for the Union to attempt the latter.

While Curtin’s team might not be able to sustain 90 minutes of high-pressing, attacking soccer, they should look to exploit Atlanta’s defense early on and sneak one by Brad Guzan.

From there, fans should expect the former.

Heading to the match? Remember to share your Matchday Story with UnionFanTV by mentioning or tagging us in your pictures (or videos) at TES. And if you’re on Instagram, use the hashtag #MyPhilaUnionStory to be featured on our page, as well as in the next edition of Through the Fans’ Lens. 

Kickoff is slated for 7:00 PM ET. Not heading to TES? Check out CSN Philly, MLS Live or FOX Sports GO (and probably a slew of illegal streaming services)  

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