Minnesota United at Atlanta United: Keys to the match, projected starting XI and a prediction

Minnesota United at Atlanta United

When: 6:30 p.m. CT Saturday
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Stream: Apple TV Season Pass
Radio: KSTP-AM 1500 ESPN
Betting line: Atlanta minus-140; draw plus-310; MNUFC plus-300

Series history: The 2017 expansion cousins haven’t played in MLS since May 2019, when Atlanta won 3-0 to run its record to 3-1-0. The two sides played in the 2019 U.S. Open Cup final, which Atlanta won 2-1 that August. It remains the closest MNUFC has gotten to a trophy in its MLS era.

Form: MNUFC (5-2-2, 17 points) has won two straight games, allowing only one goal in two games with its new-look three center-back defense. Loons are tied for lead the Western Conference at 1.89 points per game. Atlanta United (3-3-3, 12 points) is winless in its past four matches, including a scoreless draw with the Chicago Fire last time out.

Quote: “They have one of the best strikers in the league in (Giorgos) Giakoumakis and one of the best 10s in the league in (Thiago) Almada, so we know how potent their attack can be,” Loons goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair said. “I think with their recent slide in results, they are definitely going to be desperate to get a result at home.”

Connection: Loons head coach Eric Ramsay helped Atlanta head coach Gonzalo Pineda obtain his coaching badges in Wales a few years ago. “”We were back and fourth on Zoom,” Ramsay said.

RELATED: Getting to know MNUFC head coach Eric Ramsay

Absences: Emanuel Reynoso (unexcused absence), Hassani Dotson (hamstring), Hugo Bacharach (knee), Clint Irwin (groin) and Jordan Adebayo-Smith (ankle) are out. Kervin Arriaga returned to training Friday after birth of his baby boy on Wednesday, but is questionable for Saturday.

Hot: Midfielder Robin Lod (three goals and six primary assists) has been the team’s MVP through the 1/4 mark of the season. Forward Tani Oluwaseyi (team-high four goals) is in all the right places at exactly the right times. Joseph Rosales feels like a natural in yet another new position (wingback) and he was named to the MLS team of the week on Monday.

Cold: Winger Bongi Hlongwane (four total shots and no goals in past five games) doesn’t look like his 2023 self. New center back Victor Eriksson had another inauspicious cameo — a foul-filled debut for MNUFC2 at the end of April. He struggled in his MLS debut against Philadelphia at the end of March.

Stat: MNUFC has called on 25 players to take the field in MLS action this season, including 18 different starters. “That’s what’s going to help us win — getting the buy-in of a broader squad,” assistant coach Cameron Knowles said this week.

Another stat: When the Loons have more than 50 percent possession in a match, they are 0-2-1. When they have 49 percent of the ball or less, they are 5-0-1. They had a season-low 37 percent possession in the 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City last Saturday.

News: More transparency has finally come to MLS, with the league sharing each club’s roster profiles. It parses out contract status, roster designations, international roster spots and more.

Takeaways: That roster profile says captain center back Michael Boxall, midfielder/center back Kervin Arriaga and Franco Fragapane have contracts that expire at the end of the year, without option years.

View: In that trio, Arriaga is expected to be the most coveted player to sign a new contract extension. He is on a lower wage ($189,667, per MLSPA), has his U.S. green card and has been praised by new Loons leadership. Meanwhile, his name reportedly was linked to lower-level European leagues this week.

Projected XI: In a 5-2-3 formation, LW Franco Fragapane, CF Tani Oluwaseyi, RW Sang Bin Jeong; CM Robin Lod, CM Wil Trapp; LB Joseph Rosales, CB Micky Tapias, CB Michael Boxall, CB Devin Padelford; RB DJ Taylor; GK Dayne St. Clair.

Prediction: The Loons will need to locate and close down space on World Cup-winning Almada, but they will have trouble slowing the free-ranging Argentine midfielder down without its No. 1 midfielder Dotson. Atlanta shows itself yet again to be the better 2017 expansion side in a 2-1 win.

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