After an intense two legs against Atlanta United in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals earlier this season, the Philadelphia Union is a perfect guest for Sunday’s return to MLS action at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
It will be the first meaningful fixture in three weeks for both clubs; additionally, Jim Curtin and Gabriel Heinze’s rivalry will resume in front of a full house in Atlanta, the largest crowd the Union will perform in front of since the 2019 MLS Cup playoff exit at the same venue.
Needless to say, Curtin and his group are raring to go.
“Atlanta has shown to have a great supporter culture for their team. As an opponent, you live off that energy. You want fans to get in your ear and heckle you,” captain Alejandro Bedoya said.
Curtin also noted that there is a difference between a full capacity crowd, and a crowd that has only been able to be full capacity three times since March 7, 2020, and hasn’t seen its team play for nearly a month.
“We’ve had two heated, highly contested games in Champions League,” Curtin said of the upcoming opponent. “Both teams will be missing some important pieces through injury or international call-ups, so we’ll have to execute perfectly to go down their and get a result.”
In recent years, the Union have struggled to get results in Georgia’s capital.
However, they turned the tide in March with the 3-0 win in the first leg of the CCL quarterfinal, despite being outplayed for much of the match. In league play, the “Five Stripes” haven’t lost at home yet, beating Chicago and Montreal while playing Nashville SC to a 2-2 draw in their most recent fixture. Curtin cited the atmosphere as an assist to an already strong squad.
“They have great fans. They get on you just the right amount, in a nice, southern way I guess you could say. Look, it’s a beautiful stadium, a hostile environment, and a good soccer team that doesn’t lose very often there,” Curtin said. “They’re a great team, that’s number one. They have great talent, and they are dangerous in that building. For those who have never been there, it gets loud, it really does. It’s a difficult environment to be in.”
Atlanta United will be aiming for an emotional, boisterous return to action. Curtin noted that the best way to find a result in the tough road environment will be to mitigate the first 15 minutes of play.
“Every coach in MLS is guarding against those first 15 minutes and how difficult they are going to be. It is almost like the start of a new season, where you think you know how your group’s going to look and you think you have them organized,” Curtin said.
“Three weeks without any competitive games is too long, and it’s difficult for the players,” Curtin continued. “I think every coach, and I’m not the only one, will be anxious in those first 15 minutes. [It is important to be] really setting the right tone, and having the right intensity and mentality when that opening whistle blows, because we have all been resting for what seems like forever.”
Once the whistle blows, the Philadelphia Union will be taking the field competitively for the first time in three weeks in front of hostile fans. It will take a gusty performance, and one that will require the veterans to calm the game down and make it tough for the crowd to play its role.
Luckily for the Union, the most experienced player on the roster is fit and excited for the spectacle.
“We feed off of that energy too,” Bedoya said. “Soccer, or any sport for that matter, is not the same without fans. I’m looking forward to a packed house in Atlanta, and I can’t wait to hear the boos and what not; it makes the game fun and interesting.”
Kick off is set for 2 p.m. at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and will be broadcasted nationally on ESPN.