MARIETTA, Ga. — After 13 days off, Atlanta United FC will resume Major League Soccer play Saturday and continue its quest to capture the Supporters’ Shield.
The Five Stripes are already in Colorado, set for a 3:30 p.m. clash with the Rapids. It’s the first of three games Atlanta will play during a span of eight days. Trailing the New York Red Bulls by one point in the race for the Supporters Shield, every game is a must-win.
“Going out to Colorado, you have to deal with the altitude. It’s going to be hot. It’s a day game, so there’s those factors, but it’s stuff we’ve dealt with in the past,” said Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst. “Every game is important right now.”
The Rapids have struggled this season, totaling an overall record of 6-15-6. Still, Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City is a difficult place to play for the rest of league. At 5,164 feet above sea level, that altitude can be tough for players to adjust to.
That’s still true for 34-year-old Parkhurst, who has played in Colorado many times in his eight-season MLS career.
“(The altitude) definitely takes an affect. In my past experiences, usually the first 30 minutes or so are the toughest,” Parkhurst said. “I think once you get past that, you get your second air, you get adjusted and used to it and I don’t think it’s much of a factor.”
While Colorado has been arguably awful this season, posting a goal differential of -19, the Rapids at least have been decent at home. Out of 14 games in Commerce City this year, the Rapids have won five and taken points in three more.
The altitude can affect a player’s fitness, but it can also impact how the ball moves as well. Goal kicks fly farther, shots from distance come quicker at the keeper and long passes can be unpredictable.
Veteran goalkeeper Brad Guzan doesn’t seem to be worried about how the elements will impact his game.
“I’ve played there a few times, so hopefully I keep the ball inbounds more often than not,” Guzan said. “You adjust accordingly, but nothing really changes. In terms of fitness, obviously there’s going to be moments in the game where we may not be able to press the way we’d like to at certain times, but in saying that, we’re fit, we feel good, we’re ready. We know it’s going to be a tough game on the road, but regardless of altitude or heat or weather conditions, we’ll fight through it.”
Atlanta head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino didn’t seem too worried, either. When a reporter asked him Thursday about how it might impact the game, Martino pointed out several Atlanta United players have played the game in South America, in places like La Paz, Quito and Bogota, where the elevation can range from 8,000 to about 9,500 feet above sea level.
Martino seemed more concerned with how Colorado will play, rather than where they play. The Rapids are winless in their last three games and getting a result at home could give them some momentum to end the season on a high note.
“They’re a team who I think has improved. I think the addition of Kellyn Acosta has improved them,” Martino said through a translator.
Acosta, a 5-foot-10, 23-year-old midfielder, arrived to Colorado in July when the club completed a trade with FC Dallas. In his six starts with the Rapids, Acosta has two goals and two assists. The Rapids are 2-3-1 in games he’s played in.
The influx of Acosta coincided with a tactical switch for the Rapids. Head coach Anthony Hudson went from playing five in the back to a 4-4-2 diamond.
A strategy teams have employed previously against Atlanta is to bunker down in hopes of stalling the offense or drawing a players into a red card. With Acosta and a nothing-to-lose attitude, the Rapids may try something different, and that could make them a dangerous opponent.
“Even though it’s a team that maybe has a slim chance of entering the playoffs, I think that’s a challenge for them to finish the season playing well,” Martino said. “And surely they’ll be up for the challenge of facing a good team at home.”