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Rob Valentino has thanked his Atlanta United players for pushing their bodies to the limit to finally gain some momentum and keep alive their playoff hopes.

The interim head coach has more than steadied the ship since Gabriel Heinze’s exit last month, having guided the Five Stripes to three straight league wins ahead of Saturday’s trip to D.C. United.

Valentino was supposed to make way for Gonzalo Pineda following the midweek win over Toronto FC, but COVID protocols mean the latter will have to wait until next week before taking charge.

Pineda arrives with the mood considerably better around the club than it was just a few weeks ago, and Valentino puts that down to the sacrifices made by the players during a tough run of games.

“I appreciate their efforts. I probably don’t say that enough because they sacrifice their bodies and try to perform to the best of their abilities,” he said.

“I appreciate the sacrifice they put on their body day in and day out. They play through injuries and what not. I really appreciate that.

“That’s not easy going on a Sunday, then a Wednesday and now going again on Saturday. A win is a win and it’s important for this group and for the club at the moment.”

United’s form is heading the opposite way to Atlanta’s, having lost back-to-back games at the hands of Nashville SC and New England Revolution.

The Black and Red remain three points better off than their next opponents in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, and head coach Hernan Losada is remaining upbeat after falling to a one-goal loss against the division-leading Revs.

“The last game was exciting,” he said of the 3-2 reverse. “To show this level in the first half against the leader in the East, it makes me very proud.”

PLAYERS TO WATCH

D.C. United – Edison Flores

Flores was a surprise starter for United against the Reds, being included in the XI for the first time in nearly three months following just one substitute appearance against Nashville. The Peru international set up Paul Arriola’s early opener and was heavily involved during his 67 minutes on the field, suggesting he will need little time to get back to full speed.

Atlanta United – Ezequiel Barco

Barco has hit the ground running since returning from Olympics duty with Argentina, the 22-year-old playing an integral part in the run of three successive victories. He scored what proved to be the match-winner against Toronto and has directly contributed to four goals in his last four appearances – two goals and two assists – making him one of the division’s in-form players right now.

KEY OPTA FACTS

– The away side won both meetings between D.C. United and Atlanta United last season. Atlanta’s 4-0 win in October 2020 was their first road points at D.C. after losing their first four visits by a combined score of 8-2.

– United conceded eight goals over their last two matches, both on the road. D.C. have won four in a row at home and have allowed just five goals at Audi Field all season.

– Atlanta United have won three straight matches after winning just twice of their first 17 matches this season, including a club-record 12-match winless run. This is Atlanta’s longest regular season winning streak since a four-game run in August 2019.

– Ola Kamara’s run of six straight matches with a goal ended in D.C.’s loss to New England on Wednesday, but he did assist on Ramon Abila’s late goal, making it seven straight matches with a goal contribution. The last D.C. player to have a streak as long was Christian Gomez (also seven straight) from May-June 2006.

– Barco scored the game’s only goal in Atlanta’s 1-0 win over Toronto FC on Wednesday. Barco has scored three times in his last three matches after finding the net just once in his previous 22 MLS appearances.

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