Is the Union’s home game Saturday night against Atlanta United the biggest regular-season contest in the team’s 10-year history?
There are probably other candidates, in years when reaching the playoffs wasn’t as certain as it is now. But not many, given how rarely that has happened.
There certainly hasn’t been a top-of-the-table clash quite like this one. The teams are tied in points (48), with Atlanta holding a game in hand (27 vs. the Union’s 28) and the first tiebreaker of total wins (15 vs. 14).
So while Union manager Jim Curtin and his players might like to treat this like any other game, they know they probably can’t.
“Is training a little more intense right now? Are there more questions in film [sessions]? Absolutely,” Curtin said after practice Wednesday. “I’m not going to lie and say it’s the same as any other week, because it’s not. The stakes are higher.”
Atlanta will come to town fresh off winning the U.S. Open Cup on home turf Tuesday night, beating Minnesota United, 2-1, in the final. That game was preceded by a 1-0 win at Orlando last Friday. That’s not an ideal amount of rest, but it could be worse.
Curtin expects the visitors to bring their full complement of weapons, led by star playmaker Gonzalo Martínez and record-setting striker Josef Martínez.
“I don’t anticipate them rotating a ton just because they’re in such a good rhythm right now,” Curtin said.
In the teams’ last meeting, the Union stole a 1-1 tie in Atlanta back in March in the third game of the season. The Union were a much different team then: Jamiro Monteiro wasn’t on board yet, Marco Fabián was injured, and Cory Burke hadn’t yet been kicked out of the United States by federal immigration authorities.
The Union won’t be at full strength this time either, with Alejandro Bedoya suspended because of yellow card accumulation. Still, Curtin hopes his team will try to take the game to the reigning MLS champions.