A perfect record under new RSL head coach Mike Petke (2-0-0) is on the line as expansion side Atlanta United FC visits Rio Tinto Stadium for the first time in their history this weekend.
Where they stand
Real Salt Lake (2-3-2, 8 points) — who were in dead last place just two weeks ago — now sit in sixth place in the West, just five points out of first. If nothing else, this is a true testament to how quickly things can change this early in the season. With two wins in as many games during the Petke era so far, RSL are looking to keep their newfound form alive with a win over the visiting Atlanta side, which would make it three straight.
The Claret and Cobalt are flying high after their recent wins against the Vancouver Whitecaps and rivals Colorado Rapids — the latter coming in the form of two late-game goals with Brooks Lennon scoring the game winner to put away his first-ever MLS goal.
Atlanta United (2-2-2, 8 points) sits in sixth place in the Eastern conference, also just five points out of first place. While they had a better start to the season than RSL did — including back-to-back wins against Minnesota (6-1) and Chicago (4-0) — their form has tapered down a little as they’ve drawn two and lost one of their last three outings. The loss of Venezuelan international striker Josef Martinez to injury has had a significant impact on their results.
While this is the final match of a four-game road trip for the Five Stripes, they’ll be looking to get a positive result in this one. They’ve been handed red cards in two straight games — Yamil Asad earning one in Toronto, while defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez was shown the red against Montreal last week. Pirez’s red card, however, was rescinded this week after Atlanta appealed the decision, so he will be available in Sandy this weekend.
While RSL is still plagued by injuries, they’ve found a way to keep scoring goals, and youth has played a massive part in that. Brooks Lennon, who scored the game-winner in Colorado, has been a force on the wing in Jordan Allen’s absence, while Bofo Saucedo has shored up the left side of the attack, both sending in quality service to Yura Movsisyan while taking some great shots of their own.
Albert Rusnak has been a key cog in the RSL attacking machine as well, as he’s been able to get forward with a quickness and play much higher than he did in the beginning of the season. He’s made it clear that he’s more comfortable playing in a higher attacking position, and he seems to be finding his rhythm and chemistry with this squad.
With those four players on the pitch together, RSL has scored seven goals this year.
We can’t forget to mention another US U-20 national teamer in Danilo Acosta, who has stepped up and performed very well at right back over the last two games while Tony Beltran has been out with a back injury. With so much youth talent on the RSL squad, it seems like almost any starting position is up in the air at this point.
On the Atlanta side, they’re full of young talent who has shown what they’re capable of, scoring an impressive 14 goals on the season thus far. Five of those goals have come from the talent of 23-year-old Venezuelan striker Josef Martinez, who went down in late March with a left quad injury, and has only made three appearances this season. He was expected to be out 4-6 weeks, so he won’t see the field for at least another couple games.
He’s not the only dangerous player on their team, though, as they have attacking options in Hector Villalba (three goals, two assists) who has stepped up to the plate in Martinez’s absence, and Yamil Asad (one goal, two assists), while 23-year-old playmaker Miguel Almiron pulls the strings, notching two goals and three assists himself.
United also has a solid backline that includes USMNT-capped veterans Greg Garza and Michael Parkhurst, who have allowed only seven goals this season.
Real Salt Lake
OUT: Chad Barrett (knee surgery, 4-6 months), David Horst (knee surgery, 6-8 weeks), Justen Glad (knee injury)
QUESTIONABLE: Jordan Allen (quad strain), Tony Beltran (back injury), Aaron Maund (hamstring strain), Sunny (hamstring strain), Joao Plata (quad injury)
OUT: Zach Loyd (groin injury), Josef Martinez (quad injury)
QUESTIONABLE: Tyrone Mears (ankle injury)
Real Salt Lake: Rimando; Acosta, Wingert, Schuler, Phillips; Beckerman, Mulholland; Lennon, Rusnak, Saucedo; Movsisyan
Atlanta United: Kann; Mears, Parkhurst, Walkes, Garza; Gressel, Larentowicz, Carmona; Asad, Almiron, Villalba
When: Saturday, April 22, 7:30PM MT
Where: Rio Tinto Stadium — Sandy, UT
Weather: 45 degrees, partly cloudy
Broadcast: KMYU, ESPN 700, MLS Live
Referee: Ricardo Salazar