Enjoy this Atlanta United home game against Chicago while you can.
By the time the Five Stripes return to Bobby Dodd Stadium, they will have traveled more than 13,000 miles to play four road games before they once again get to stay in Atlanta to play D.C. United on April 30.
So, while trying to win every home game is the goal, getting three points against much-improved Chicago on Saturday is extremely important in what may be a good barometer of what expect from Atlanta United in the league this season.
“We will be very focused this week to get three points, move into that break, and then go into four difficult road trips,” midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said. “Getting three points is very important.”
The stretch of road games isn’t a surprise and was made necessary because of spring football at Georgia Tech and the need to use the stadium field.
But it won’t make it any easier.
In addition to the miles and travel fatigue, Atlanta United must face Seattle, the reigning champs; Toronto, the runners-up; Montreal, the Eastern Conference runners-up; and Real Salt Lake, also a playoff team last year.
Add that this Chicago squad isn’t the same that finished last in the Eastern Conference the past two seasons, and the challenge is great for the MLS expansion squad. The Fire have added midfielders Dax McCarty and Juninho. Though Juninho didn’t play in the first game, Chicago still took one point by tying Columbus and then, with Juninho and McCarty anchoring the midfield, defeated Real Salt Lake 2-0 with two goals by Nemanja Nikolic and Arturo Alvarez in the first 15 minutes.
“It’s a totally different team than it was last year than years past,” goalkeeper Alec Kann said. “They will be organized, compact, solid defensively, good attacking players. We have to do our work to get ready for it.”
Atlanta United has had an interesting to start to the preseason and season, making it difficult to tell how the team may fare this season. It played only two MLS teams in the preseason, only one of which (Columbus) started any first-team players. The other (Seattle) fielded its B team.
The season started with the adrenaline rush that marked the first game in front of more than 55,000 at Bobby Dodd Stadium. After taking a 1-0 lead on a goal by Yamil Asad, the energy dissipated and Atlanta United lost 2-1. The game against fellow expansion side Minnesota United was next. Playing in the snow against what could be a historically bad team, Atlanta United easily won 6-1. Some of Atlanta United’s players described the game as odd because the weather conditions made it impossible to try to utilize manager Gerardo Martino’s tactics.
The weather is supposed to be good Saturday. Though the second game should be a sellout, the capacity of Bobby Dodd Stadium has been reduced from 55,000 to 45,000 because of construction in the northern end.
Add the familiarity of the second game and the quality of the opponent, and the team and its supporters should get a much better idea of its quality ahead of the longest road stretch of the season.
“In order to be a playoff team you have to win a majority of your home games,” team captain Michael Parkhurst said. “We lost that opportunity in Week 1. We don’t want to do the same in the second home game. That, coupled with the upcoming stretch of away games, makes this of utmost importance.”
Coach: Veljko Paunovic, second season.
Previous game: defeated Real Salt Lake 2-0.
Three Players to watch:
Arturo Alvarez: The longtime MLS midfielder joined Chicago before the 2016 season and had five goals and nine assists. He has one goal this season.
Dax McCarty: Acquired in a trade with the New York Red Bulls, McCarty has solidified Chicago’s midfield and provided an excellent shield for the back four.
David Accam: The speedster has 20 goals, including one this season, in MLS since joining Chicago before the 2015 season.