Atlanta United are bound to come out flying in Leg 2 of their Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal series on Tuesday night at Subaru Park (8 pm ET | FS1, TUDN), needing to overcome a 3-0 deficit against the Philadelphia Union.
Given that inevitably, Union head coach Jim Curtin feels the game's opening stages will be determinative. Naturally, an early away goal would give Gabriel Heinze’s team confidence that this tall task can be toppled over.
“Certainly the first 15 minutes is probably the most important for setting the tone of what the game is going to look like,” Curtin said. “Starting the right way is critical in a competition like this. We know Atlanta is a high-quality opponent that likes to have the ball, they're good offensively – they really open you up.
“Both teams will be a little bit shorthanded, I believe, and on very short rest, which makes it difficult for both teams. But in our stadium, we always like to be proactive and not reactive and allow it to be a situation where they jump out on top of us like they did in Atlanta. Hopefully we can start the game the right way, be aggressive and play our style in our home building at Subaru Park.”
Philadelphia, looking to build off a 3-0 win last week in Leg 1, will be without holding midfielder Jose Martinez due to yellow-card accumulation. Atlanta, Heinze disclosed, will also be missing winger Jurgen Damm and attacking midfielder Ezequiel Barco due to muscle injuries. Lisandro Lopez is another Five Stripes’ absence due to family reasons.
And both teams are emerging from Week 3 setbacks suffered on Saturday evening, with Philadelphia dropping a 2-0 decision against New York City FC and Atlanta falling 2-1 at the New England Revolution. As has become a league-wide trend, early-season fixture congestion has impacted CCL-competing clubs as they compete on two fronts.
The pressure’s certainly on Atlanta, though, since they need at least three away goals to even the series on aggregate. Should Philadelphia score, then a fourth goal becomes necessary as urgency creeps in.
“It's a great challenge, it's a big motivation,” Heinze said through a translator. “It's also helping to analyze other things, but also as I say to the players, we always talk about the word hope. This hope, I connect it with the world battle and the group is proving this game by game.”
Both MLS sides overcame Costa Rican opponents in the Round of 16, with Atlanta beating Alajuelense 2-0 on aggregate and Philadelphia beating Saprissa 5-0 over the two legs. Now, the winner will encounter either the Portland Timbers or Liga MX side Club America when the semifinals begin later this August.
“What we are going to try is to put the score closer to the result we want,” Heinze said. “Of course it's in a short time, but we know how difficult this game is and we will not stop trying.”
There’s no denying that Philadelphia are in the driver’s seat. Odds are they’ll get chances, especially if desperation creeps into Atlanta’s approach.
“We also know the longer we keep a clean sheet and keep it at zero, the number of players they throw forward will have to increase,” Curtin said. “We have to kind of bend but don't break and also be efficient in a counter-attack situation where we know as they do throw numbers forward, can we execute and finish off plays like we were able to do in the second half down in Atlanta?
“It's going to be a very challenging game, again, a great opponent that's very well-coached. So we'll have to be on our A-game to still see this through. We're only halfway done.”