Atlanta United will visit the Philadelphia Union on Saturday afternoon in a match that could go a long way toward deciding the 2021 MLS Cup playoff field.
Atlanta (9-7-9, 36 points) and Philadelphia (9-7-8, 35 points) reside in sixth and seventh place, respectively, in the Eastern Conference.
But unlike in their previous league meeting in Georgia this spring, Atlanta is the club entering Saturday's clash in better form. Atlanta United have won three in a row and seven of their past eight (7-1-0).
That resurgence began under interim manager Rob Valentino after the firing of Gabriel Heinze -- and continued in the past four games under new full-time boss Gonzalo Pineda.
And much of it has owed to the improvement of attackers Josef Martinez and Ezequiel Barco.
In Martinez's case, his seven goals in eight games represent a return to the form that has made him Atlanta's all-time leading scorer. But Barco's run of six goals and five assists in nine matches is easily the best run of the 22-year-old's four-year MLS tenure.
"I will never take that credit because it is all Barco," Pineda said of Barco, who had a goal and an assist in a 3-2 win over D.C. United last Saturday.
"I do not know how he trained before or how he played before, I could not see it, but what I have noticed since I got here is I can see a very hungry player."
Philadelphia snapped a three-match winless run (0-2-1) in Sunday's 3-1 victory over Orlando City, with Kacper Przybylko scoring his team-leading seventh and eighth goals to snap a seven-match drought in league play.
And the Union now are freed from having to manage league commitments with the CONCACAF Champions League after losing their semifinal to Mexico's Club America.
But Atlanta is likely to provide a stiffer test than Orlando City, who were hampered from captain and leading scorer Nani serving a red card suspension.
"The team that's coming in from Atlanta is playing as well as anyone in our league. They are very dangerous and dynamic with their attack," Union manager Jim Curtin said this week.
"A new coach has injected some life into this team. There's no secret they have an incredible amount of attacking talent."
--Field Level Media