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Ailing D.C. United limping into Atlanta United test

The Black-and-Red wrap up road swing with first-ever meeting with Atlanta

D.C. United hasn’t exactly enjoyed the start of the recent three-game road swing in MLS play. There were a couple of positives in the first half two weeks ago, until poor play after the break undid them against the New York Red Bulls. Injuries to Steve Birnbaum and Nick DeLeon, to go with Patrick Nyarko’s ongoing absence, made a sour loss even that much worse.

Last weekend, United improved, getting their first two goals on the road in 2017 against the New England Revolution. But they also conceded to start each half, and had to settle for a draw after having a 2-1 lead at halftime.

Now, heading into their first ever game against Atlanta United, D.C.’s list of walking wounded is becoming a problem. At Tuesday’s open practice, Birnbaum, DeLeon, Nyarko, Sebastien Le Toux, and Rob Vincent were all missing. Not exactly ideal heading into a game against one of the highest scoring teams in the league.

“We’re a little thin,” head coach Ben Olsen said on Tuesday, after practice. “It’s a bit of an injury bug.”

Against the Revolution, United were forced into an unfamiliar lineup involving several changes from the Red Bulls defeat. Kofi Opare, Lamar Neagle, and Le Toux all got their first starts of the season, and Maxim Tissot made his United debut, replacing an ill Taylor Kemp. Luciano Acosta was bothered by his ankle, though he did come on in the latter stages against New England as United pushed for a road win.

Given United’s slow start to the season, the draw against the Revs wasn’t exactly what they were looking for, especially with a lead going into halftime. Considering the changes that Olsen was forced to make, though, and it was an indicator that United has the depth and character to go on the road and give themselves a chance to win.

“It was a back four that had never played together. I think it’s a good group,” defender Sean Franklin told B&RU on Tuesday. “We have a lot of depth this year, and it’s good to have players that can step in and get the job done.”

United start off the month of May with three home games in a row, a nice opportunity to spark their season. First up, though, they face a daunting trip to Georgia for a first-ever meeting against another MLS United.

Atlanta made all sorts of noise coming into the league, putting together an expansion team the way no other MLS team had done before. The Five Stripes brought in Gerardo Martino - whose experience includes leading Barcelona and the Argentinian national team - in as their first coach. From there, Atlanta has used strong connections and deep pockets to add numerous talented attacking players from South America.

And while they’ve gone through some of the usual expansion bumps (including a few red cards), Atlanta has mostly impressed through their first two months, picking up 11 points and scoring 17 goals in their first seven games.

“Everyone has been impressed with them so far,” said Olsen. “I think they made some good decisions from an expansion team, a balanced group with experienced defenders, and special attacking pieces.”

“They’re tough. They’re real. This isn’t a fluke team,” added Olsen. “They aren’t winning games out of emotion or belief. They are a real team.”

The Black-and-Red haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory defensively this year, especially on the road. They only have one shutout to their name, and that came all the way back in the season opener against Sporting Kansas City. In three road games this year, D.C. has conceded eight goals. That means they’ll have to step their game up this weekend against the second best attack in the league, playing in front of a sellout crowd of 45,000.

“Atlanta is a talented group. They have some strong attacking players, something that we have to be aware of,” said Franklin. “We have to have a strong mentality going into that game. We have to make sure that we’re sharp, talking, compact. It’s going to be a tough game.”

On the other side of the field, United benefited from goals from Le Toux and Jared Jeffrey against the Revs. But United still rank near the bottom of the league in goals, tied with the aforementioned SKC with six goals, one ahead of the anemic Colorado Rapids.

United hit the woodwork three times against the Revs, once from Neagle, and twice from rookie Ian Harkes. The latter player had one of his best games of his young career against New England. But with Patrick Mullins - who is likely to return to the squad for this weekend’s game - yet to find the back of the net, United will need to receive production, goals, from positions all over the field.

“We need goals from everybody. The way we are set up, we need everybody to chip in. We need our backs to chip in on set pieces, we need second line runs, we need our wingers to give us a couple of back stick goals,” said Olsen.

“We need a [number] nine to put in 10 goals a year, we need our highest central midfielder six or seven. That’s just how we have always had success. It’s not by one guy having 20 goals. Ian [Harkes] and our central midfield are going to be part of that equation. Soon enough, Ian will help out as well,” Olsen said on Tuesday, talking about how he thought the goals would start coming for Harkes.

And with the injury list the way it is, United is going to need to continue to get solid performances from everyone on the field in order to earn points. But that’s a message that Olsen has always preached.

“The message is, show up, you’re all here for a reason. Give me a seven or eight [out of ten] on the day,” said Olsen. “If we collectively have that many good performances, we have a chance to win games.”

“That’s no different this weekend. The way we build our team, it’s deep. We don’t have the $6 million players, but we got a lot of really good players that are capable of getting results in this league.”