- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2018

When D.C. United midfielder Yamil Asad returned to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta in March, there wasn’t much to celebrate as the visitor in front of 72,035 of his old supporters.

Atlanta had twice as many shots as D.C., completed 58 more passes and ran away with an early-season 3-1 win. Asad, who was on loan at the club last season and now plays for D.C. on loan from Vélez Sarsfield in Argentina, said his first return trip to Atlanta felt bizarre.

That won’t change Saturday in a rematch, but the circumstances leading up to the match have. When United last met Atlanta, it was the start of a brutal stretch of away games, one that yielded just two wins in 14 attempts as Audi Field was under construction.

Now the new facility is complete, and Saturday’s contest is one of the few remaining away tilts during the second half of the season. D.C. had a commanding win in last week’s home opener, and Asad hopes that result supplies a spring in the squad’s step before facing his former club.

“I never thought I’d be playing against them, so it’s always going to be a little strange,” Asad said through team interpreter Rory Molleda. “Now with this team, compared to that first game, we’re going into the game with more confidence, with a different energy, different preparations, so I’m confident about that.”

Scoring goals hasn’t been United’s main issue this year. They’ve been shutout just once in 15 games and are averaging just under two goals a contest. But D.C., having played at least three fewer matches than any other team in the Eastern Conference, still sits at the bottom of the division, partly because of periodic defensive shortfalls.

United displayed plenty of attacking movement in the first half against Orlando City in the U.S. Open Cup last month, but it dried up late and D.C. bowed out of the tournament on penalty kicks. A leaky defense negated the four goals scored against Toronto FC in June. Atlanta, the league’s top scoring outfit, poses a mighty threat.

“They have a really good midfield and attack, probably the best in the league,” Asad said. “But we need a win and it depends on us alone to get in the playoffs.”

“We have to definitely take away their threats in [Miguel] Almiron — he’s one of the best players in MLS. And Josef Martinez right now is scoring so many goals,” midfielder Ian Harkes said. “We’ve got to be aware of those threats constantly and make sure that we defend together. … If you’re off on one thing, then they’re going to punish you.”

United completed 166 more passes than the Vancouver Whitecaps last week and soaked up possession of the ball in their 3-1 victory. D.C. would’ve had a clean sheet, though, had there not been a 94th minute lapse — or an impressive individual effort from Vancouver’s Alphonso Davies, depending on your viewpoint.

Still, there were positive signs for a second-half climb up the standings. Wayne Rooney played well in his debut. Asad scored his eighth goal of the year, topping his tally from last season in about half the time. Quick passing and movement off the ball led to Paul Arriola’s two goals to seal three points.

“We’ve had that kind of play happening more and more throughout this year, which has been great for us,” Harkes said. “I think Wayne coming into the game really helped that, just finding the simple pass and keeping the ball moving and killing off the game and having that possession higher up the field.”

United will need more of that against league-leaders Atlanta to aid D.C.’s defense, who have a tall task against an imposing strike force in Asad’s second return as a visitor to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“It’s going to be fun for him to be back there and play against his old teammates and hopefully get a little revenge,” Harkes said. “We want to respond better this time going down there.”

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