Atlanta were the most charming expansion debutants in MLS history last season. D.C. – themselves once league darlings – were a last-place team, except when they defeated Atlanta three times. (Or “Atlanta FC” as the RFK Stadium scoreboard labeled them.)
This offseason, Atlanta acquired possession fiend Darlington Nagbe to help solve teams who follow D.C.’s sit-deep-and-counter approach. D.C. snagged Yamil Asad, the midfield workhorse who scored Atlanta’s first-ever competitive goal.
So as they meet for a fourth time at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday (3 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada), before what could be a crowd of 70,000, is it possible that this fixture is already a real rivalry?
“Well,” says D.C. coach Ben Olsen, after a long pause. “Maybe a little bit.”
D.C. will always have the New York Red Bulls, and Atlanta will have Orlando and soon Nashville. And with all the attention poured onto the Five Stripes – both by their own fans and the national media -- D.C. are far from the only club that gets psyched to visit.
“It’s going to be 70,000 people,” Olsen reiterates. “That’s exciting for players. I don’t care how big a player you are or how long you’ve been playing. To play in that type of atmosphere, you don’t do it a lot.”
Olsen insists that he hasn’t unlocked some secret formula to solve the Five Stripes, and that D.C. “rode our luck” over the course of last year’s season series.
But it’s worth noting that D.C. have invested considerably into their wide positions over the past year with Asad and Paul Arriola. And it was Alberth Elis’ play from a position similar to Arriola’s with D.C. that spurred the Houston Dynamo to a 4-0 home win over Atlanta in both teams’ opener last weekend.
“We didn’t focus too much on the Houston aspect,” Arriola told MLSsoccer.com of D.C.’s preparations. “I think we know what we need to do. The solutions are obviously going to come on the field and how we work that out is amongst ourselves.”
Olsen suggested the look of this year’s matches may be different to last year’s, because D.C. is also undergoing a shift to become more possession-oriented.
Results like last week’s 1-1 draw against 10-man Orlando City, in which United allowed a very late equalizer, are one reason why.
“Being effective in transition is a key for any team,” Olsen says. “Being efficient and good in that against a team like Atlanta, who throws that many numbers forward and is that aggressive, is always going to be a crucial part of the game.
“When we do retain possession, when we do win the ball back, we have to secure the ball. And in the second half of Orlando, that was something that haunted us.”