MARIETTA, Ga. — When Atlanta United visit CenturyLink Field to play the Seattle Sounders on Sunday in the league’s marquee match of the weekend (3:55 pm ET | ESPN in the US; TSN1, TVAS in Canada), it’ll feature two teams locked in a battle for MLS supremacy on and off the field.
Since Atlanta United’s introduction to the league, little has separated the competitive balance between these two teams, resulting in two consecutive deadlocked results over the last two years. Episode Three of this budding rivalry appears to be equally as tight, as both teams sit in third place in their respective conferences.
“It's going to be a very fast paced game,” said Justin Meram after Atlanta United’s training session Friday. “It might not be like [last Sunday's draw with] New York [Red Bulls], not quite as intense, but I can see a matchup like this being just as tough.”
Tough. It’s the perfect word to describe the matchup between two of MLS’s tallest giants. When the teams played early on in Atlanta United’s inaugural season, it was Atlanta that spoiled the party with a gutsy 0-0 draw. A year later, Seattle turned the tables with a heroic defensive performance, playing down a man for half an hour and earning a hard-fought point with a 1-1 result.
As Seattle’s squad is bolstered from players returning to action, this weekend’s matchup appears to be just another variation on the theme.
“They have all their players back now,” Atlanta head coach Frank de Boer told reporters Friday. “[Nicolas] Lodeiro already made the difference in the last game with two goals. He's a major impact for Seattle. The striker [Raul Ruidiaz] is back. I think they have the quality players back now and I think they really started well this season with good combination football.”
Seattle talisman Lodeiro is a player de Boer is quite familiar with, having coached him earlier in his career at Ajax during one of de Boer's title winning seasons at the Dutch superclub.
“It was nice to have him — a fantastic player to work with and good work ethic, but also good quality,” said De Boer. “He was maybe a little bit unlucky, he had Christian Eriksen and those kinds of players in front of him in the No. 10 position. I think he did well and he's now a member of the national team and playing a lot. It's nice to see that he's enjoying himself on the pitch.”
Despite the abundant talent in the Sounders’ attack, Atlanta’s biggest challenge might be its own road form. The team has conceded goals in the first five minutes in each of its last two road games, something de Boer chalks up to concentration and energy.
“You have to put the right kind of gasoline in the tank,” said de Boer. “If we do that, there's a big chance we have a good result. But if we don't put that effort in, then it's going to be very hard. It's a nice stadium, nice fans, so we have to be ready.”
“Nice” is one way to put it. Seattle set the bar for attendance in the league up until Atlanta United’s arrival, and the raucous fans combined with the artificial turf often make for a venue that give players trouble. Meram, who's scored in two of his four visits to CenturyLink Field, might be the only one looking forward to it.
“I love playing there,” laughed Meram. “I have a couple goals out in Seattle, so I wouldn't mind it happening again.”