Match previews

Playoff match preview: Atlanta United vs. Philadelphia Union

Photo: 215pix

Who: Atlanta United (2nd place, 58 points, 18-12-4) vs. Philadelphia Union (3rd place, 55 points, 16-11-7)
What: 2019 Eastern Conference semifinal
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium
When: Thursday, October 24 at 8:00 pm
Watch: ESPN2, ESPN Deportes
Whistle: Ismail Elfath; Corey Parker, Kyle Atkins; Baldomero Toledo; Edvin Jurisevic

The stage is set.

Philadelphia Union head to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to face Atlanta United in MLS’ Eastern Conference Semifinals Thursday night. The winner, thanks to a ridiculous challenge from New York City FC’s Ronald Matarrita, will host the conference finals.

If you’re a Union fan, go back and read that again. Let it sink in. This is real.

This will be the third meeting this season between the Union and United. Their last match came on Aug. 31 and saw Philadelphia earn their first ever victory over Atlanta with a 3-1 win at Talen Energy Stadium. Overall, the Boys in Blue are 1-3-2 against the Five Stripes, but earned their first ever point at Atlanta’s home field in the sides’ first game of the season. That was a 1-1 draw where, despite losing the possession battle, the Union created the greater number of chances.

But this game isn’t about the past. It’s about creating lasting legacies.

For the Union, that means extending what has already been the best season in franchise history. For Atlanta, it’s etching the club’s name in MLS history.

Scouting report: Atlanta United

Playoff proven

Atlanta United are looking to repeat.

Last year, they won their first-ever MLS Cup. Only three clubs have ever successfully defended the trophy. The most recent occurrence came seven seasons ago when the LA Galaxy won back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012.

The offseason saw former Ajax, Inter Milan, and Crystal Palace manager Frank De Boer replace Tata Martino as head coach of United, with the latter leaving to helm Mexico’s national team. The bigger loss came on the field with Atlanta’s talisman, Miguel Almiron, heading to Newcastle United F.C. Atlanta replaced Almiron with the most expensive signing in league history, attacking midfielder Pity Martinez.

The changes haven’t changed United’s winning ways. This season, they’ve already won both the U.S. Open Cup and the Campeones Cup. And that’s with Martinez being relegated to a substitution role.

In the playoffs, Atlanta haven’t been eliminated since their first ever postseason game in 2017. Even that was decided by penalty kicks. Including their Open Cup run this season, Atlanta have advanced in nine consecutive elimination situations. The last win came last weekend, where a 1-0 win over New England Revolution led to tonight’s match.

Defensive questions

There aren’t a lot of holes in the Atlanta roster. It’s a stacked lineup, when healthy.

United opened their playoff run without maybe their best player this season, center back Miles Robinson. Robinson finished third in voting for this season’s MLS Defensive Player of the Year, but he suffered a hamstring injury suffered while on international duty with the U.S. team.

Atlanta were able to replace the 22-year-old with a 35-year-old MLS stalwart, Michael Parkhurst. Against the Revolution, Parkhurst displayed a masterpiece of defending with de Boer favoring a more pragmatic approach. Serving as Atlanta’s captain, and announcing his imminent retirement earlier in the season, Parkhurst’s excellent evening ended when he dislocated his shoulder in stoppage time.

The injuries to Parkhurst and Robinson destabilizes a defense that’s conceded a microscopic 0.8 goals per game at Mercedes-Benz this season. De Boer could either feature a back three or back four against Philadelphia.

The safe money would be a back line with Julian Gressel and Justin Meram at wing backs. Florentin Pogba, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, and Franco Escobar would serve as United’s three center backs.

It’s a vulnerability the Union will look to exploit. After all, their own center backs will be under siege.

  • Injury report: OUT — Brek Shea (D, knee injury); Miles Robinson (D, left hamstring injury); Michael Parkhurst (D, left shoulder injury)
  • Suspended: None.
  • International duty: None.

Scouting Report: Philadelphia Union

Unfamiliar waters

Not sure if you’ve heard, but the Union won their first ever playoff game.

It came against New York Red Bulls in Sunday night’s dramatic 4-3 comeback win. It was an emotional high for both the fan base and the club. Philadelphia, though, will need to avoid a corresponding emotional letdown.

The Union’s season was dependent on getting that first taste of postseason success. It was a binary measurement: win a playoff game, or the season is a disappointment.  That box has been checked, and everyone is happy.

So what’s next? It can go two ways.

Maybe the Union lose a bit of determination and drive that fueled Sunday’s drive. After all, they’ve already accomplished enough. Or maybe the Union play relaxed, poised, care free soccer. Maybe without the weight of expectation, the Union reach new heights.

Philadelphia head coach Jim Curtin mentioned, when the Union and Red Bulls were tied at 3-3, that whoever won would feel good heading to Atlanta.

Will the highs of the win serve as rocket fuel, or will the emotional drain of an emotional night leave the tank empty?

Tactics

Good news and bad news came from Curtin’s pregame teleconference Wednesday afternoon. Forward Kacper Przybylko is “highly unlikely” to play with a foot injury, but captain Alejandro Bedoya will start.

Curtin said he knows who will be the 11 players to start against Atlanta, but the formation will depend on United’s defensive setup.

It’s easy to figure out the easy selections: Andre Blake starts in net with an unchanged back four in front of him. Bedoya, Haris Medunjanin, and Jamiro Monteiro form the core of the midfield. After that, the choices get harder.

The first decision is the formation. The Union have played in either a 4-4-2 diamond or a 4-2-3-1. Against Atlanta, they’ve used both. Generally, the latter has been used to accommodate attacking midfield Ilsinho, who is unlikely to start with his best games coming as a “super sub.”

Two of Curtin’s Sunday substitutes scored critical goals against New York. Forward Fafa Picault and Marco Fabián knocked home the game tying and game winning goals, respectively. Does that mean the pair will both start against Atlanta?

Not necessarily.

Atlanta, while certainly not to an extreme, has struggled against the press this season. It also works as Curtin may opt to go defensive to stem a lethal attack. Forward Sergio Santos should get the start after one of his best games. Striker Andrew Wooten got the nod on Sunday, but was poor. Was the presence of a formidable forward like Wooten, though, what allowed Santos to wreak havoc on the Red Bulls back line?

Maybe, but Picault will likely start after a dominant game of his own. He excels in the press and is dangerous on the counter. It’s also why midfielder Brenden Aaronson could start over Fabián. After all, both of Aaronson’s two career goals have come against United.

  • Injury report: QUESTIONABLE: Kacper Przybylko (F, foot stress reaction)
  • Suspended: None.
  • International duty: None.
Matchup to watch: Josef Martinez vs. McKenzie & Elliott

In the win over Atlanta, Union center backs Mark McKenzie and Jack Elliott were excellent. Even still, Atlanta forward Josef Martinez scored a spectacular goal. While the dominant striker didn’t match last season’s record breaking goal total, he break a new record with 15 consecutive matches with a goal. Overall he still managed 27 goals despite missing five matches.

Player to watch: Alejandro Bedoya

Philadelphia’s captain embodies the Union’s spirit. When he’s on the field the team plays with the same tenacity and hunger that encapsulate the player. Despite being laboring noticeably with cramps or groin injury, Bedoya was instrumental in the Union’s first playoff win. He also has a penchant for scoring postseason goals.

Prediction: Atlanta United 2-2 Philadelphia Union*

The revamped playoff format has delivered everything so far…except penalty kicks. Before the playoffs started, I predicted the Union would lose in the second round to Atlanta. What fun is that? Blake redeems himself, and the Union host the conference finals after penalties.

11 Comments

  1. If it goes to PKs, certainly anything can happen… but I don’t like our chances. I am not at all down on Andre Blake — I think he’ll prove that his last outing was a fluke — but he’s never been fantastic on PKs. And we’d be going up against the wily veteran Guzan.

  2. Dillon Cruz says:

    I’ll take it!

    DOOP.

  3. OneManWolfpack says:

    Last time I was this hyped for a Union game… I mean legitimately hyped up… was probably one of the Open Cup Final games at Talon. So much anticipation and now with the added bonus of getting to host the East Final if you get there?!?! AHHHHHH!!!!

    • i was pretty hyped last week. the prospect of hosting a conference final, with the confidence of having stood toe-to-toe with United already — we cannot squander this opportunity. we must advance past tonight. i’m hyped.
      we keep the goals allowed under 3, we have a chance. 3 is asking too much, again, against a better team than pink cows.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    I’m looking for a clean sheet tonight from Superman. Period. That is the expectation.
    .
    I want this team to play the same way the Nationals are playing. They got in. They got over the hump of wildcard and have been getting better and better each day.
    .

  5. You just can’t start Wooten. If we’re employing the same 4-4-2 to start, it has to be Santos – Picault or Santos – Fabian to start. I know Curtin said Bedoya is ready to go, but I’m quite a bit worried for him. He put in a shift with a hurt hamstring.

    I’m not sure Philly can match Atlanta on quality, particularly on he attack, but I fully expect them to out work “the five stripes.” Wanting it more, in my opinion, really will make a big difference tonight. Let’s bring that conference final to Chester.

    • Quad (not hamstring), but yes to everything you said… I think.
      .
      Are you suggesting Fabián up top or at the CAM in the 4-4-2?

    • I tend to agree that you can’t start Wooten. Fafa is good off the bench, sure, but you can’t play 2/3 of the game with your hands tied behind your back against a team like Atlanta and then expect to blow them out in the last 30. I would get Fafa into the starting lineup.

  6. I think Aaronson earned continuing to start over Fabián. Ilsinho and Fabián as super subs is the ticket. Bedoya starting is the best news. He is the glue. Why second guess a diagnosis of cramp vs muscle pull?

  7. Having Robinson out is huge for them, De Boer hinted at it too. They can’t play their high line safely without him, he provided the recovery pace and tactical nuance They can be a more exploitable side without him in the line up. Go get em boys!

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