Union bracing for 'intimidation and chaos' at Atlanta United

Jim Curtin has heard the horror stories from his coaching brethren across MLS about the challenges of playing Atlanta United on its home turf.

He watched Atlanta’s 7-0 demolition of New England two weeks ago, a result that helped cost longtime Revolution coach Jay Heaps his job. He watched Sunday’s 2-0 win over Montreal, a game broadcast locally and nationally on Fox’s flagship network after the Eagles’ win over the Giants.

Now it’s the Union’s turn.

Take your pick of what makes games in Atlanta a spectacle and a challenge unlike any other in MLS’ 21-year-history.

The mammoth crowds of over 45,000 under the roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium create a din that makes it impossible to communicate with players. The venue’s artificial surface makes games faster than they would be on grass.

Most important, Atlanta’s extraordinary attacking talent has scored goals by the bagful — including 19 in the team’s five games in its new home so far.

“They’ve created an atmosphere of intimidation and chaos,” Curtin said. “We’re not going to go out and leave ourselves exposed at the back. We’ll have to be smart about how we do it.”

The Union have caught some breaks that will at least reduce the odds of being the latest team Atlanta steamrolls.

One is that United playmaker Miguel Almiron will miss the game after suffering a hamstring injury on Sunday. The 23-year-old Paraguayan is the straw that stirs Atlanta’s drink as a creative force in the center of midfield.

Another is that Wednesday’s game ( TCN, 7 p.m.) will be Atlanta’s seventh of eight in a 24-day stretch that began Sept. 10. The congested schedule was caused in part by having to delay Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s opening from late July until early this month.

One can only guess whether Atlanta coach Gerardo Martino is more likely to rest other key players Wednesday night or in Saturday’s game at New England. But the odds are that Martino will want to put on another show at home.

With Almirón out, dynamic wingers Yamil Asad and Héctor Villalba are likely to be the main sources of service for striker Josef Martínez, who has scorched the MLS scoring charts with 17 goals in just 16 games.

Villalba is a fine scorer too, with 12 goals in 29 games. His most recent strike was a spectacular shot from 20 yards against Montreal, launched after beating a slew of Impact defenders off the dribble.

“They have so much freedom,” Curtin said. “If you start chasing them man-to-man all over the field, they’ll kill you, because individually, their talent is superior to any team in our league, to be honest.”

Curtin added that he doesn’t expect to change his team much from the one that beat Chicago in impressive fashion this past Saturday. But with a visit from reigning MLS champion Seattle looming Sunday, Curtin acknowledged that some squad rotation will be on the cards in the coming days.

“There may be a change or two, but it won’t be a drastic one,” he said. “The toughest one is always the third [game in a week]… That will be where we’ll have to make some smart decisions.”

Philadelphia Union at Atlanta United

7 p.m. Wednesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Ga.

TV/online streaming: TCN, MLSSoccer.com (paid subscription)

Union's record: 9-12-9, 36 points (9th in the East); 1-8-6 on the road
Atlanta's record: 14-8-7, 49 points (3rd in the East); 10-2-2 at home

Series history: Union 0 wins, Atlanta 0 wins, 1 tie
At Atlanta: First meeting

Atlanta players to watch

Forward Josef Martinez: Even though he missed 10 games from late March to early June with a thigh injury -- and three more in July and August with a foot injury -- the Venezuelan is tied for fourth in the Golden Boot race.

Defender Leandro González Pirez: The 25-year-old Argentine is a physical and powerful centerback. It's no coincidence that Atlanta gave up three goals to Orlando in the only league game this year in which he didn't play.

Midfielder Kevin Kratz: Remember when the Union signed him last September? It's okay if you don't, because he didn't play a minute here. As it turned out, he was effectively signed on Atlanta's behalf, and was traded there in December. He might be Almirón's replacement against his old team.

MLS Golden Boot Race

1. Diego Valeri, Portland Timbers (20 goals, 9 assists)
2. David Villa, New York City FC (19 goals, 9 assists)
3. Nemanja Nikolic, Chicago Fire (18 goals, 4 assists)
4. Ignacio Piatti, Montreal Impact (17 goals, 6 assists)
5. Josef Martínez, Atlanta United (17 goals, 1 assist)
6. Ola Kamara, Columbus Crew (16 goals, 3 assists)
7. Bradley Wright-Phillips, New York Red Bulls (16 goals, 1 assist)
8. Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC (15 goals, 6 assists)
9. David Accam, Chicago Fire (14 goals, 7 assists)
10. C.J. Sapong, Philadelphia Union (14 goals, 5 assists)