MLS Week 21 preview: Atlanta look for another win; Hudson River Derby

Written By Harrison Hamm on August 20, 2021

It’s another busy week in MLS. There was a full midweek slate on Wednesday, featuring a couple of notable results — the league-leading Revolution reversed a 1-0 deficit and beat D.C. United 3-2 despite a red card.

Inter Miami scrapped out a much-needed stoppage time winner against Chicago.

And the Union notched an impressive 1-0 win over NYCFC in a matchup of Eastern Conference contenders.

Next week is the All-Star game, between MLS and Liga MX All-Star teams. Before we get to that, though, there’s a big Saturday slate of games, including some notable derbies. Let’s preview some of the most interesting ones.

D.C. United vs. Atlanta United (Saturday, 8pm)

I’m not sure how much this qualifies as a rivalry (or whether it’s supposed to), but it’s an interesting game between two teams in that clump of Eastern Conference sides hovering around the playoff line. Atlanta picked up a 1-0 win over bottom-feeders Toronto FC on Wednesday, with an Ezequiel Barco goal the difference. Barco’s play has perked up lately, which we admittedly have said a lot over the past three years, only to be disappointed.

But Josef Martinez is back now and playing at a pretty high level. He scored the winner in a 1-0 win over LAFC over the weekend (part of Atlanta’s three-game win streak) and looks close to full strength after last season’s ACL injury. That bodes well for more quality Barco performances, as does the presence of Marcelino Moreno, who is settling in as Atlanta’s new No. 10.

D.C.’s stretch of good games went away when they faced Nashville and New England, the two top teams in the conference, in quick succession. They scored four goals over those two games, but gave up eight. They will need a better defensive performance against Atlanta.

New York Red Bulls vs. NYCFC (Saturday, 8pm, Fox Sports 1)

NYCFC will be solid favorites in this derby. They’re third in the Eastern Conference, one point behind Nashville with a game in hand, and have looked like one of the best teams in MLS. Their finishing struggles have meant that some results haven’t gone their way, including that midweek loss to Philly, but they’re good at generating chances and playing progressive passes.

The Red Bulls, theoretically, are a pressing team, which would make them an interesting tactical opponent for NYC. But NYRB have generally struggled this summer, with individual errors and a lack of attacking firepower losing them results. If NYC bring their finishing boots, they’ll have the advantage.

Austin FC vs. Portland Timbers (Saturday, 9pm)

It’s been tough sledding lately for Austin FC. Their once-promising expansion season has started to go off the rails as they have fallen to last-place in the Western Conference with just 16 points from 19 games. Since a 4-1 win over this Portland team on July 1, they’ve won just once in seven matches, losing the other six.

During a midweek loss to the struggling Vancouver Whitecaps, manager Josh Wolff pulled DP attacker Cecilio Dominguez in the first half, citing concerns that Dominguez was not physically up for the match. It’s another bad sign for an attack that has struggled mightily all season. Austin has scored only 14 goals all season, easily the lowest total in MLS.

Four of those came in that game against the Timbers. While Portland remains a solid team that could be a threat in the playoffs, defensive struggles have pushed the Timbers into a dogfight for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. They need wins against teams like Austin, and with Sebastian Blanco now returning from a year-long injury absence, they should have the talent to get them.

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