It's a busy start to the year for all five of MLS' entrants to the Concacaf Champions League, balancing the continental tournament as well as the opening weeks of regular season MLS play, all while working towards full match fitness.
“The league is put on hold right now, Champions League is the priority," Union head coach Jim Curtin said on a virtual press conference Monday.
Both sides started essentially full-strength XIs this weekend in MLS despite the game Tuesday looming, though with one notable exception perhaps with CCL in mind. Josef Martinez only entered as a substitute in Atlanta's 3-1 win over Chicago Fire FC on Saturday, though Curtin said he expects to see Martinez in the starting XI on Tuesday. The Venezuelan continues to work back to be match fit and sharp after suffering a torn ACL last year.
“I will pick the best players for this game," Heinze said succinctly through a translator, before adding he'll take into consideration sports science data but will ultimately pick his starting XI based on what he sees in training.
Philly and Atlanta didn't play a competitive match against each other in 2020 thanks to the truncated, regionalized schedule to come from the COVID-19 pandemic. The last time the two met was in 2019, when Atlanta eliminated the Union in the conference semifinals of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. Both coaches were full of praise of their opponent ahead of Tuesday's clash.
“You want to test yourselves against the best and Atlanta has been one of the best in our league," Curtin said. "Atlanta is as hard a place to play in our league. … I like playing against Atlanta because they’re a high-quality opponent. You learn a lot about your team. These are fun games.”
Curtin credited Heinze for quickly establishing his style and ethos in his first year as ATL UTD boss. Heinze noted Philly's complex and difficult to break down midfield diamond.
“They’re a very talented team, everyone saw what they did last year," Atlanta fullback George Bello said. "We’re looking forward to it. it’s going to be a great game, we have a lot of respect for them.”
All five MLS entrants in this year's edition of the CCL advanced to the quarterfinals. MLS is guaranteed to have at least one semifinalist, as one of Philly or Atlanta will advance. All five clubs still hope to make history and become the first MLS side to win this version of the Champions League and, with it, a berth to next year's Club World Cup.
“You can feel a sense of urgency with our guys, recognizing the opportunity," Curtin said. "As crazy as it seems to start to dream about it, you think about the winner of this competition and what this means. The chance to play against someone like Man City, or a champion from Brazil. It’s not as crazy or far off as you think.”