A beat-up Atlanta United will play at Sporting KC on Sunday in a game that features the best offense in MLS facing the league's best defense.
The Five Stripes (10-7-4), unbeaten in their past five, will likely be without starting striker Josef Martinez (foot) and left fullback Greg Garza, who suffered a separated shoulder in the opening minutes of Wednesday's loss to Real Madrid in the MLS All-Star game. Still, Atlanta United is tied for the league lead with 41 goals scored this season, despite not having Martinez for more than half of its 21 games.
Sporting KC (9-4-9) sits atop the Western Conference because it has allowed just 17 goals, the league's lowest total.
Sam McDowell (@SamMcDowell11), who has been working for The Kansas City Star for five years and who serves as the Sporting KC beat reporter, among other duties, answered three questions ahead of the game.
Q: Who will fill the scoring void left by the trade of Dom Dwyer?
A: Sporting Kansas City remains interested in external options before the transfer window closes next week, but for now, that task falls to Diego Rubio. He brings a different element to the Sporting KC attack because of his ability to keep the ball and extend possession. In its first match without Dwyer, Sporting KC scored three goals in a victory against Chicago, and players and coaches alike credited an improvement movement and cohesion on the front line.
Q:What makes this team so effective on defense?
A: A stout back line and career-best season from goalkeeper Tim Melia receive a lot of the credit, and rightfully so. But it's important to note the defense doesn't get put in bad spots often, at least relative to the past two years. Sporting KC is remarkably good in possession since the acquisition of midfielder Ilie Sanchez, which prevents counterattacks. Add to that, Sporting KC has been aided by a bounce-back season from United States men's national team veteran Matt Besler and a healthy season from Ike Opara, who many have pegged as an MLS defender of the year candidate.
Q: What is the matchup to watch on Sunday?
A: It's probably a bit obvious, but Atlanta's offense against Sporting Kansas City's defense should be a fun one. Atlanta is tied for the league lead with 41 goals. Nobody has allowed fewer than Sporting KC with 17, and it's conceded one or fewer goals in all but one of its home matches. Of note is the diversity in Atlanta's attack, which should present some intriguing individual matchups with the aforementioned back line from Sporting KC.