Major League Soccer

Atlanta United-D.C. United Preview

(AP Photo/Todd Kirkland, File)

There will be no shortage of star power Sunday at Audi Field as reigning league MVP Josef Martinez and Atlanta United begin defense of their MLS championship with a visit to Wayne Rooney and D.C. United.

After finishing second in the Eastern Conference last season with 69 points, Atlanta disposed of NYCFC and the Red Bulls before beating Portland to win the MLS Cup in the franchise's second season. It was the city of Atlanta's first major sports championship since the Braves won the 1995 World Series and the final was played before a crowd of 73,000 at Mercedes Benz Stadium.

Despite that success, Atlanta did undergo some offseason changes and most notable was the departure of coach Tata Martino, who left for the Mexican national team. Now at the helm is Frank de Boer, who has stints at Ajax, Crystal Palace and AC Milan under his belt. Star midfielder Miguel Almiron also is gone but the cupboard is far from bare.

Expected to help fill the void left by Almiron's exit is new signing Pity Martinez, the reigning South American Player of the Year who left River Plate in Argentina. Atlanta still has the services of Josef Martinez, who captured MVP honors after scoring a league-record 31 goals - including four against D.C. - and then adding four more in the playoffs. He has 50 goals over his first two seasons - most in the league during that span.

"It's hard to stop great forwards, it's what they do," D.C. coach Ben Olsen said of Martinez. "They know how to get free, they have a great sense of where the ball is going to arrive. But we've done pretty well against him, had some good luck at times too."

Atlanta scored a league-high 70 goals last season and offense shouldn't be much of a concern this season either, especially if Pity Martinez adapts quickly to his new team.

D.C. looks to pick up where it left off after closing the regular season on a 7-0-4 run.

Though it fell to Columbus in the opening stage of the playoffs, D.C. made minimal offseason changes and should be formidable again with a full season from Wayne Rooney. England's all-time leading scorer tallied 12 goals and seven assists in just 20 games with D.C. and formed a powerful 1-2 punch with Luciano Acosta, who tied for second on the club with 10 goals and added 17 assists. He returns for his fourth season with D.C. after turning down overtures from France.

Olsen's team went 13-2-2 at home last season with its last loss there coming on Aug. 29 to Philadelphia. D.C. lost two of three to Atlanta last season, but has won three consecutive home matches in this series. Acosta scored twice and Rooney had a goal and two assists in a 3-1 victory on Sept. 2.

"You're fighting for a top (seven) spot to make the playoffs. The big difference this year is if you win your league, you'll have every game at home in the playoffs," Rooney said. "That's big for us to try to do that, to try to get the home advantage in all the playoff games."

Updated March 1, 2019

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