A pair of All-Stars and two of the league’s best scorers go head-to-head Sunday in a key Eastern Conference showdown as Josef Martinez and reigning MLS Cup champions Atlanta United host Wayne Rooney and D.C. United.
The sides are separated by two points in the standings, with D.C. (9-8-5) second and Atlanta (10-3-8) third. Both are chasing conference-leading Philadelphia in a tightly-packed table in which the top seven teams entered the weekend separated by seven points.
Both clubs are coming off rather easy lopsided victories. The Five Stripes walloped Houston 5-0 on Wednesday night as they played all but the first six minutes with a man advantage thanks to a red card on Dynamo striker Alberth Elis. Martinez had a second-half brace while Julian Gressel added a goal and two assists for Atlanta, which ran its home unbeaten streak to eight matches (7-1-0).
“We were really into it from the first second the game started,” Atlanta United coach Frank de Boer told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It continued when we play against 10. It continued every time. We were good in shape, organized. I gave them a compliment. How they played, even after 3 or 4-0, they did what we asked them to do and you see they created a lot of chances.”
Martinez’s brace gave the Venezuela international 19 goals in 22 matches in all competitions and 10 in a six-match goal-scoring streak in league play that brackets his appearance in Copa America. The striker is showing the form that helped him set the MLS single-season goal-scoring record last year with 31, which included a hat trick in last year’s 3-1 victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium over D.C.
De Boer still has to address issues at wide back, with the personnel shortages so severe he opted for a 3-5-2 formation versus Houston in which Gressel was pushed wide in a playmaker role that seemed tailor-made for him. Left back Brek Shea is out for the year with a knee injury, but regular right back Franco Escobar is slated to return after serving a one-match ban for yellow card accumulation.
The Black and Red picked up just their second win in 10 league matches (2-6-2) Thursday night with a 4-1 thrashing of MLS newcomers FC Cincinnati on the road. Lucas Rodriguez had a brace on either side of halftime – including the go-ahead goal on 59 minutes — while Rooney and Paul Arriola each contributed a goal and an assist for D.C., which has a chance to win back-to-back league matches for the first time since May 4 and 12.
“Definitely much-needed,” Arriola told the team’s official Twitter account regarding the win. “The team has been playing well and the results haven’t been going completely out way … despite the handball (that led to Cincinnati’s goal on a penalty kick), it’s easy for us to turn off 1-1 away. Credit to the boys for coming out and finishing the game strong.”
Rooney leads United with 11 goals and seven assists and has factored in eight goals over the last nine league contests. Arriola has made a seamless return following international duty for the U.S. at the Gold Cup with a goal and two assists in his first two matches back.
Coach Ben Olsen rested No. 1 keeper Bill Hamid and Chris Seitz finished with two saves in his first league start of the year, allowing only Emmanuel Ledesma’s penalty that came after Arriola was whistled for a handball. Playmaker Luciano Acosta will be available for selection after serving a suspension for a red card in D.C.’s 2-2 draw at New England on July 4.
D.C. United opened the season with a 2-0 victory over the Five Stripes on March 2 when Arriola scored in first-half stoppage time and Acosta added a second in the 58th minute. Despite having 56 percent possession, Atlanta was outshot 17-9 and put only two shots on target in de Boer’s first game in charge.
(Josef Martinez photo courtesy Atlanta United FC official Twitter account)