Match previews

Match preview: Philadelphia Union vs. Atlanta United

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union (2nd place in the Eastern Conference, 48 points, 14-8-6) vs. Atlanta United FC (1st place, 48 points, 15-9-3)
What: 2019 regular-season game
Where: Talen Energy Stadium
When: Saturday, August 31 at 7:30 pm
Watch: PHL 17, ESPN+
Whistle: Robert Sibiga; Matthew S. Nelson, Kevin Klinger; Eric Tattersall; Jorge Gonzalez

There’s no room for tempered expectations or feigned insignificance.

This is first versus second.

Saturday’s clash between Atlanta United and Philadelphia Union is a monumental match, and likely the biggest regular season game in Union history.

“I’m not going to lie and say it’s the same as any other week because it’s not,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said during his weekly press conference Wednesday afternoon. “The stakes are higher, and I think, most importantly, the players are confident right now. They want to test themselves against one of the top teams, the defending champs, and a team that’s had a great, great season.”

With only six games left, Philadelphia will need all three points to potentially finish atop the Eastern Conference for the first time in club history. Currently level on points, Atlanta have a game in hand and have a +16 goal differential compared to the Union’s +10.

Those vital three points will be hard to secure.

United are rolling after a slow start to the season.

Scouting report: Atlanta United

The champs are here

After a 6-5-2 start to their title-defending season, Atlanta have gone 9-4-1 since May 19. What’s even scarier are the seven straight wins the Five Stripes have secured across all competitions.

United aren’t just the defending MLS Cup champions. Two of those seven wins have earned them some silverware. First, Atlanta defeated Club América in the Campeones Cup.

Then, on Tuesday, Atlanta added to their trophy case by winning their first ever U.S. Open Cup with a 2-1 win over Minnesota United.

“Congratulations for winning the Open Cup— a big feat for them, but there are hangovers from the Open Cup that can go a lot of different ways,” said Curtin. “You can have a positive reaction from it. You can have a late night. Whatever it might be, I don’t anticipate them rotating a ton just because they’re in such a good rhythm.”

Curtin will need to figure out how to disrupt that rhythm. Atlanta haven’t been shut out since May 19, largely due to one of the best attackers in MLS playing some of his best soccer.

During that stretch, forward Josef Martinez has scored 17 of his team-leading 22 goals.

While Atlanta have regained the ruthlessness of last season’s attack, their new coach has added something new.

de Boer’s de Fense

Remember “de Boer Out?”

Well, the Atlanta fan movement to push out new manager Frank de Boer after a handful of games hasn’t aged well.

Sure, he didn’t deploy the attractive, attacking style of former coach Tata Martino, but his defense-first approach has created a defensive juggernaut. Only Los Angeles FC have allowed fewer than Atlanta’s 30 goals.

In their last nine games against MLS competition, the Five Stripes have an astonishing six clean sheets and conceded a single goal twice. Again, only LAFC were able to score multiple goals against them.

Atlanta added youngster Miles Robinson to a back line of Leandro González Pirez, Michael Parkhurst, and Florentin Pogba. The 22-year-old Robinson might just be the best of the bunch, earning a September call-up to the U.S. men’s national team.

  • Injury report: OUT— Brek Shea (D, right knee injury); Ezequiel Barco (M, muscle injury)
    QUESTIONABLE— Franco Escobar (D, right upper leg injury)
  • Suspended: None.
  • International duty: None.

Scouting report: Philadelphia Union

Replacing the engine

For Curtin, midfielder Alejandro Bedoya isn’t just the Union’s captain.

“He’s the engine of our team,” said Curtin.

Against Atlanta, Curtin won’t be able call on Bedoya for the first time this season. The veteran will be suspended for Saturday’s game after picking up a yellow card in last weekend’s 3-1 win over D.C. United.

A high-profile name who was noticeably absent from the starting 11 in that victory could fill the void and keep the engine humming along.

With six goals and one assist, midfielder Marco Fabián hasn’t performed at the level expected of the most expensive signing in club history. The Mexican international was replaced in the lineup against D.C. by 18-year-old Homegrown midfielder Brenden Aaronson, who picked up a goal and assist.

Both players, along with Jamiro Monteiro, will need to play at their best if the Union want to regain their spot atop the Eastern Conference. The latter has been deployed lately as a No. 10, but his coach thinks he has the versatility to fill the defensive hole left by Bedoya.

“[Monteiro] not only attacks well, but defends well,” said Curtin. “He can be at the corner of a diamond. He can play as an eight which you might see this week. He could play almost anywhere on the field.”

Judging by the coach’s midweek comments, the likely lineup is a 4-2-3-1. Monteiro plays the role of Bedoya with Aaronson and Fabián ahead of the Dutchman.

The right mindset

The general approach in MLS is to field an offensive lineup at home and a defensive lineup on the road.

Against Atlanta, that hasn’t held true. Even at home, teams prioritize containing United over attacking them.

Curtin thinks that’s a deadly approach.

“We’re in our building, and we have to be brave,” said Curtin. “Teams that sit back against Atlanta and just absorb it, eventually they’re going to break you down. That’s not something we want to do, so we want to be proactive. We want to get on the field and be the best version of the Philadelphia Union in 2019, which is something that I think we haven’t yet been for 90 minutes.”

Eight of United’s nine losses have come on the road. It’s a small weakness the Union will need to exploit, and they’ll need a newly-energized crowd to do it.

“We have the home-field advantage, and we have to utilize it,” said Curtin. “I know our fans will be themselves and maybe even ramp it up another notch. We’re going to need them to push us through on a day that is going to be difficult.”

  • Injury report: None.
  • Suspensions: Alejandro Bedoya (M, yellow card accumulation)
  • International duty: None.
Key matchup: Backs vs. backs

Atlanta already had one of the best outside backs in MLS with Julian Gressel. At midseason, they completed what Curtin called “the bargain move of the season” by trading for Justin Meram. United are lethal with those two as wing backs, whipping crosses to Martinez. Philadelphia will need left back Kai Wagner at his best, threatening the flank, and right back Ray Gaddis providing dependable defense.

Player to watch: Ilsinho

Atlanta may have a ton of skilled players, but they don’t have Skilsinho.

“Look, we can talk about formations, but really we’re talking about Ilsinho,” said Curtin. “We’re +23 goals when he’s on the field, so that makes formation selection kind of irrelevant.”

The scary thing: he’s been on the field for only 861 minutes this season. It’s an eye-popping stat that quantifies what’s been evident all year: Ilsinho breaks down even the most structured defense. Curtin mentioned his knee is a little sore, but he’s the key to unlocking de Boer’s defense.

Prediction: Philadelphia Union 3-2 Atlanta United

It seems every big game in MLS this year has produced a big scoreline. This game is massive. The Union survived Atlanta’s daunting home field. Atlanta won’t do the same at a rejuvenated Talen Energy Stadium.


  1. Biggest game in Union regular season history? Sure, why not.
    Rolling over DC was fun but it was tantamount to a training session. Missing Bedoya this game will hurt us more than their absences will hurt them. Really wish he didn’t pick up that yellow.
    Curtin is right. If we sit back and absorb they’ll eventually get their goal(s). The Union must come out blazing, get their goals, and compete head to head. It’s going to be nearly impossible to keep them off the scoresheet so we gotta get on it early.
    Ray Gaddis versus Justin Meram is the match up I’ll be watching. And by that I mean I’ll be anxiously waiting for Meram to slice and dice Ray Gaddis. I think Montiero understands the import of his role sans Bedoya. Hopefully everyone else does too.
    Prediction: Union WIN 2-1; Marco bags one from outside the area and Kacper nods in an easy header. Josef scores on a counter. Ilsinho does…nothing.

    • Yeah sure why not.
      Yes a listless D.C. United. I actually think Curtin may get his wish in seeing the best 90 out of the Union so far. Especially if the team sets up in the 4-2-3-1 with Monteiro next to Haris.
      I actually favor Ray in the one vs. one matchup with Meram. Yes this is saying a lot I know, considering recent form. I also expect Ray will get caught at least once being tucked to close to Elliot, leaving Meram to whip a ball in for a half decent chance. If it only happens once, the team should be so lucky.
      Agree the Union win and sure the rest sounds likely too.

    • I agree wholeheartedly that this is the biggest game in union history. Are they going to hit the next level, or is this just a re-run of “that’s so union”?
      Is this model going to work or are the union just a team that will always be behind the 8-ball?
      The loss of Bedoya isn’t something to ignore, but it cannot be the end-all of our success.
      I really hope that the author’s prediction is right, but I’m assuming the negative.
      Curtin needs to demonstrate that Tanner didn’t make a mistake by giving him an extension

  2. Five Stripes Forever says:

    Atlanta likes to play offense first and will allow one on ones on defense. But their defenders are good.

    Occassionally there are lapses on defense, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Atlanta is good at keeping possession and eventually scoring.

    Its logical to think you should come out and attack Atlanta. Few teams do that because they are afraid of the counter and afraid to commit personnel to the attack. Teams have been more successful bunkering and playing for the counter.

    The only team who has had success pressing Atlanta is New Jersey Red Bull. They have given us fits since we entered the league.

    Congratulations on a very good season but I think you will be disappointed Saturday night, especially if you press.

    If you do press, you are going to leave Meram and Gressel in space on the wings. These guys have been lethal this year. With time, they will eventually find Josef Martinez or Pity Martinez with crosses.

    I don’t doubt your quality on offense. And our defensive stats may be a bit misleading because most teams don’t commit to the attack. But that’s because they are worried about getting picked apart by Gressel and Meram.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      I don’t think there is any way we can’t press Atlanta. Sitting back at home won’t do anything. Atlanta isn’t the type of team that you can sit on and absorb pressure… that won’t work. Union are very susceptible to a counter, but I don’t think Atlanta plays that way too often, if at all. I would much rather try to go toe to toe… especially in or building… than do anything else. If that leaves us exposed in certain areas, so be it. Hope for an entertaining Union win. Good Luck!

      • In Tanner We Trust says:

        I agree OMW. Also, it’s nice to find a rational and intelligent Atlanta fan. May the best team win.

  3. You make some interesting points FSF (sorry, my fingers just can’t type out your full name). And a tip ‘o the hat for coming on our board with a committed fan’s perspective rather than mindless trash-talking.

  4. Five Stripes Forever says:

    OMW,I salute your courage. Few teams did that. You and us are jockeying for homefield advantage, so pressing makes sense. just understand that most coaches looked at the film and thought it was too risky. Last year we won more games on the road because teams were more likely to press us in their own stadium.

    Watch our wings backs up top. If you start to see Meram and Gressel getting uncontested crosses into the box, then pressing is backfiring. We’ll take that all day long. Gressel is less athletic but has good chemistry with Josef Martinez and is deadly on the cross from as far as 45 yards. If you start seeing that, expect Curtin to change tactics. Also, we are pretty good on the counter attack.

    Defensively, Gressel plays on the offense’s right, which would be Philly’s left when they are on offense. He’s weak defensively but Meram is at least average and very fast and will likely defend Ilsinho.

  5. Ilsinho’s numbers aside, I really don’t think it is the right play to start him tonight. Ray is going to need help. Haris is going to need help. If Montiero starts at right wing, he can help Ray with Meram. If Crevalle starts next to Harris in the midfield triangle, he can help Harris. Aaronson can play left wing.
    Kacper, Fabian, Aaronson, Montiero (with Haris dropping dimes) should be able to generate enough offense for us.
    Conversely, the combo of Ilsinho/Gaddis defending down the right side is just asking for trouble.
    I would love to see a super-sub Skilsinho for this game.

  6. O captain my captain crunch is gone says:

    We’ll learn a lot about this team after this game. The schedule gets no easier after tonight so we
    Might as well go for 3. Let’s go U!!!

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