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Atlanta United-FCC Preview
Any chance reigning MLS Cup champions Atlanta United have of claiming the top spot in the Eastern Conference to bolster their hopes of repeating begin Wednesday night when they face first-year foe FC Cincinnati on the road.
The Five Stripes (15-11-3) are playing their match in hand on frontrunners New York City FC and the Philadelphia Union, who are nine and five points above them in the standings. Atlanta United clinched a playoff berth despite a surprising 3-1 home loss to the Columbus Crew on Saturday and are looking to avoid their first three-match losing streak in league play in their three-year history.
Josef Martinez extended his MLS-record goal-scoring streak to 14 matches in the 19th minute to stake Atlanta to a lead, but Frank de Boer's team came defense came undone in a seven-minute span of the second half as a Crew team fighting for its playoff life struck twice. An own goal by United defender Miles Robinson in the 85th minute thwarted any chance of salvaging a point for the reigning champs, who still lead Toronto FC and D.C. United by three points for a top-four spot that carries home-field advantage for the first round.
"We play a very attractive system, but if you lose too many balls, or lose too many duels, it becomes a transition game," de Boer told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It costs you so much energy. We played more forward than the opponent. They were waiting for us to make mistakes. They tried to punish us and they succeeded. It starts with winning your duels and don't lose the ball in the second phase."
All-Star center back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez will return to de Boer's starting XI after sitting out Saturday due to a yellow card accumulation and was sorely missed as his replacement - Flo Pogba - was at fault for Columbus' first two goals. Less certain is the return of midfielder Ezequiel Barco, who was held out due to injury and replaced by Emerson Hyndman.
If Martinez is able to find the back of the net in this contest, he would share the second-longest goal-scoring streak in world history with Tor Henning Hamre, who had a 15-game run with Estonian side Flora Tallinn in 2003.
FC Cincinnati (6-21-3) is assured of a last-place finish in the Eastern Conference as it trails Columbus by 13 points with four matches remaining, but the Royals played the role of spoilers to the hilt with a 1-0 victory at Montreal on Saturday night.
Allan Cruz was first to a loose ball just outside the six-yard box and poked it home 27 seconds into the contest, and FC Cincinnati's defense made the lead stand as it limited the Impact to one shot on frame and snapped a nine-match winless run (0-8-1). It was also the first clean sheet in 26 contests dating to their 2-0 victory at New England on March 24 and the first win for coach Ron Jans in six contests (1-4-1) since replacing Yoann Damet on Aug. 5.
"(I have) mixed emotions," Jans told the club's official website. "In six weeks time, I realized how much the team and the staff had to suffer this season because of the losses and changes. Now, everything came out. We had a little bit of luck. We could've killed the game with a second goal, I think. Happiness is the first emotion today."
Cruz, who shares the team lead with six goals, has netted three of them in his last six matches.
The teams played to a 1-1 draw in Atlanta on March 10, with Martinez's goal five minutes into the contest canceled out by Roland Lamah's equalizer on 86 minutes.
Updated September 16, 2019