Can Atlanta finally get past the quarter-final stage?
Atlanta United drew first blood in its MLS win column with a resounding 3-1 dowsing of the Chicago Fire on Saturday. Ezequiel Barco scored an unforgettable wonder-strike, Chicago showcased a unique own goal technique, and Jake Mulraney let loose his inner Lionel Messi. The Five Stripes don’t get any time to enjoy its success, however, with attention immediately returning to the CONCACAF Champions League and a Tuesday quarter-final clash with the Philadelphia Union.
For the third straight year, Atlanta finds itself in the final eight of the CCL. The Five Stripes defeated Alajuelense 1-0 in both legs and never looked seriously troubled by the Costa Ricans. But that storyline is a familiar one. The past two seasons have seen Atlanta trample Central American opponents only to bow out to Club America and Monterrey after 3-0 first leg blowouts. This time, though, Gabriel Heinze will be hoping for a different ending. This year’s edition offers Atlanta a shot at MLS opposition instead of a Liga MX face, though Philadelphia will like its chances to advance as much as Atlanta.
While Atlanta’s 1-0 wins over Alajuelense didn’t look terribly convincing on paper, Philadelphia left no room for doubt regarding its superiority over Deportivo Saprissa. The Union also won the first leg by a sole goal but smothered Saprissa 4-0 in round two. Jim Curtin’s side hasn’t started so brightly in league play. Philly did well to draw Columbus 0-0 away but fell 2-1 at home to Miami. Last season’s Supporters Shield winners can be afforded some leeway, however. Star midfielder Brendan Aaronson (stats) moved to RB Salzburg while Mark McKenzie departed to Genk in Belgium. The Union is yet to make any real replacement signings, though Leon Flaich was signed from German side FC St. Pauli and has been an instant midfield starter. Philadelphia is relying on 21-year-old Anthony Fontana to help recover Aaronson’s production and he’s already scored once this season.
But despite the exit of players as key as Aaronson and McKenzie were, the Union cans still pose a threat to Atlanta. Jamiro Monteiro vs Santiago Sosa is an enticing matchup, while the strike partnership of Przybylko and Santos will cause Atlanta’s centrebacks issues all night. If Atlanta can avoid being overrun in midfield by Philadelphia, its defensive solidity should ensure it picks up a result. Whether the Five Stripes can take all three points depends on what version of the attack shows up.
Predicted Starting XIs
Prediction: Atlanta United 2-1 Philadelphia Union
While Atlanta won’t be able to avoid conceding an away goal to a daunting Philly attack, a win is a must if the Five Stripes are to advance. A Barco strike and Josef’s first of the season will be enough to see Atlanta take control of the tie and hold a first-leg advantage.