ATLUTD aim to capture Shield without two key players
Second-year Atlanta United is closing in on its first trophy but will likely continue the chase for the Supporters’ Shield without two key players when they host the Chicago Fire on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Midfielder Miguel Almiron sustained a hamstring injury in the first half against New England on Oct. 6 and midfielder/forward Hector Villalba suffered an unknown injury with the Paraguayan national team last week. Neither trained with the team Thursday.
Atlanta (20-6-6, 66 points) leads its Eastern Division rival, the New York Red Bulls, by a point for the Supporters’ Shield, emblematic of the best team in Major League Soccer, with two matches left for both.
Chicago (8-17-7, 31 points) has been a disappointment but is 2-2-2 in the past six matches after an eight-game losing streak.
“The last four games we committed to a plan of giving the best possible image for the club and ourselves so we can finish strong with performances that we would like to start the next season with,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said.
Any combination of six points won by United or lost by the Red Bulls will clinch the best record for Atlanta as well as home field throughout the postseason. Atlanta has set the season attendance mark with an average of 51,826 fans per game so far, bettering its mark of 48,000 in the inaugural season of 2017.
Villalba has seven goals and nine assists, but the engine in the attack is Almiron.
He is tied for 11th in MLS with 12 goals and his 14 assists are tied for fourth. Many of his setups have been to Josef Martinez, who has 30 goals to set the league season record. Almiron’s replacement could be 18-year-old Ezequiel Barco.
“You can’t just replace Miguel with one guy -- it’s too big of shoes to fill,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst said. “The important thing is that (Barco) doesn’t have that pressure that he has to do what Miguel does.”
Atlanta coach Tata Martinez said his team learned how to play without Almiron last season when he was injured.
“We know that if Miguel is out, the guys around him are going to have to step up,” Martinez said. “Maybe they aren’t as talented as he is, but they will have to do it with a lot of hard work and sacrifice.”