Atlanta United, Sporting KC square off in top-tier matchup

Atlanta United welcomes Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday for a top-of-the-table battle at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

United (7-1-1) is unbeaten in its last eight games and sits atop the Eastern Conference standings, two points clear of New York City FC.

Sporting KC (6-2-2) gave coach Peter Vermes his 150th career MLS win with Saturday’s bounce-back win over the Colorado Rapids. Sporting KC has suffered only one defeat — a 1-0 loss to the New England Revolution on April 29 — in its last eight outings.

Sporting KC is in first place in the Western Conference, four points ahead of Los Angeles Football Club.

“I think that we’re evolving, and I also think that we’re getting challenged early on in the season with different tactical packages that teams are putting together,” Vermes said. “It’s good because it’s making us see things that, as a season progresses, we’ll be even more ready for.”

With Sporting KC out to another strong start, the U.S. men’s national team reached out to Vermes to gauge his interest in taking over the program.

Sporting KC responded by giving Vermes a contract extension that will keep him as the club’s coach and technical director through 2023.

“We want him here, not anywhere else,” team president Jake Reid told the Kansas City Star. “The U.S. is the one that has been out there obviously. I think Peter said it well: He has a huge commitment to be here and wants to be here, and obviously we share that same belief.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say it had nothing to do with (the extension). We obviously want him here for the long term. We believe in what he has done and what he’s yet to do.”

With the extension under his belt, Vermes will lead Sporting into one of the toughest venues in MLS. Atlanta is 4-0-1 on its home pitch this season. United boasts MLS’ leading scorer in striker Josef Martinez, who has seven goals this season.

United is coming off a 2-1 win over the Chicago Fire on Saturday. Martinez and Ezequiel Barco scored Atlanta’s goals. It was the first MLS goal for Barco, United’s prized offseason acquisition.

“We want to be a consistent team,” coach Tata Martino told reporters through a translator. “We know in this league there are going to be games where we have to suffer, and tonight it was difficult in the second half. They put in a lot of balls into the box that we had to defend. We know we have a lot more to go.”

Sporting Kansas City and United met once last season, playing to a 1-1 draw in Kansas City.