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Atlanta United: 5 questions with Real Salt Lake reporter

Atlanta United will play at Real Salt Lake on Saturday in the last of four consecutive road games.

The MLS expansion team is 0-1-2 during the stretch.

The game will start at 9:30 p.m. and be broadcast on Fox Sports Southeast in the South, and CW69 in Atlanta.

Chris Kamrani, has covered Real Salt Lake and MLS for The Salt Lake Tribune since 2013, answered five questions about the game. He can be found on Twitter at @chriskamrani.

Q: What is the biggest difference Mike Petke has made to the team?

A: It’s still hard to gauge where Petke’s been most effective in lifting RSL out of such a lengthy slump, but in the last couple of weeks, he’s undoubtedly instilled more of a sense of belief in the group. The 4-2 thumping at Minnesota United was a wake-up call for RSL, and Petke rode in on the heels of that loss making it known that performances like that wouldn’t fly.

Tactically, he’s asked RSL’s attacking front four to stay high up the field and press considerably more than it had prior. The wide forwards in this formation are asked to not only help create and break down defenses, but to pester the opposition’s back line into nervy moments. And that’s been paying off lately in RSL’s back-to-back wins.

Q: Did you anticipate such a dramatic turnaround in results?

A: No, not initially. RSL hadn’t won a game in nearly eight months. The attack was sputtering and not creating enough chances and RSL, perhaps more than any team in MLS, has been struck with the injury bug. Which makes the 2-0-0 start under Petke all that more impressive. The Snow Game against Vancouver was a must-win, and being able to snap a 13-game winless streak in that fashion, in those elements, seems to have unlocked something good for RSL. Atlanta, however, will provide the stiffest test to date under Petke.

Q: Which player seems to be excelling who wasn’t before?

A: Every club needs its big-name, big-money players to deliver, and Yura Movsisyan appears to have rediscovered his groove. RSL’s point striker battled through a painful heel injury the last two months of 2016, and struggled at times to bury scoring opportunities. Now healthy, Movsisyan has four goals in his last five outings, including goals in three straight games. If RSL is to continue its turnaround, it will need its confident goal-scorer to keep pounding the back of the net.

Q: Which player still needs to improve?

A: It’s not so much as one specific player, but RSL’s defense simply needs to get healthy. In the first month of the season, RSL was whittled down to its fifth-string center back and then veteran Chris Wingert, who needed to shift inside from his usual outside back spot just to help RSL manage. Breakout youngster Justen Glad remains sidelined with a knee injury, while Aaron Maund, David Horst and Tony Beltran have been out of the lineup. Injury has also left RSL without Designated Player Joao Plata, who had nine goals and 12 assists in 2016, for much of the year. It’s been a mix-and-match start to 2017 across the board.

Q: What’s the matchup to watch in this game?

A: Atlanta’s wide players vs. RSL’s midfield: Miguel Almirón and Hector Villalba will aim to exploit RSL’s lack of pace in the midfield, which will make for difficult task for Kyle Beckerman and Luke Mulholland. Atlanta’s ability to turn and burn on the counter will test RSL when numbers are pushed forward at home. Almirón and Villalba are both fast, decisive enough to make RSL pay if Beckerman or Mulholland are pushed too high up when the ball turns over. Center back Chris Schuler should be able to match up well with the physicality of Kenwyne Jones (assuming he starts), but Tata Martino will likely tell Almirón and Villalba to turn, go and not look back.

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