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Real Salt Lake hosts defending champ Atlanta, the top possession team in MLS

Atlanta United forward Josef Martinez dribbles during the second half of the team's MLS soccer match against Toronto FC in Atlanta on Wednesday, May 8, 2019. Mike Zarrilli, FR170930 AP

HERRIMAN — Amidst Real Salt Lake's two-game skid earlier this month, Corey Baird made some pretty blunt comments about the team's problems.

"When the chips are down, we aren't necessarily a tough team to play against right now," he said.

Of course, everyone wants to play beautifully for 90 minutes, but that virtually never happens. The problem, Baird said, was how RSL dealt with adversity when it arises.

Baird said RSL needed to get better at learning how to weather storms and sit back defensively when things aren't going their way.

In back-to-back wins over Colorado and Toronto the past two weeks, there have been subtle signs of those adjustments.

"When you kind of see you're under it and they're having possession of the ball and they're moving us out of spots that we want to be in, that's the time to get in our block and not get dragged out and be difficult to play against, and I think we have gotten better at that," said defender Justen Glad.

“And I think we just have to do what we did last weekend and play calm, composed soccer and get a result.”

RSL defender Justen Glad

This Friday's game against Atlanta (7 p.m., KMYU) will provide plenty of opportunities to demonstrate that improvement.

Defending MLS Cup champion Atlanta rolls into Rio Tinto Stadium as the top possession team in MLS. Under their new coach, Frank de Boer, they aren't scoring at the same rate they did a year ago, but their opponents haven't scored much lately either because they don't have possession of the ball that often.

Prior to a 1-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls last weekend, Atlanta had won five straight games by not allowing a goal in any game.

"They're going to come in here and try and keep the ball and come out on the front foot," Glad said, "and I think we just have to do what we did last weekend and play calm, composed soccer and get a result."

There will be stretches where Atlanta will inevitably dictate the flow of the match, and how RSL responds will be key.

Coach Mike Petke talked after training this week about the different challenges Atlanta presents and the variety of approaches his team could take. He said RSL could consciously sit back defensively and try to invite Atlanta forward to open it up.

Or, he said, RSL could play it straight up and match Atlanta possession for possession.

Regardless of the approach the coaching staff chooses, Petke said, "Our possession is the starting point."

Petke has some difficult lineup choices ahead of the match. Sam Johnson didn't play last week after arriving at Rio Tinto Stadium late, and the three attacking players who got the nod — Sebastian Saucedo, Jefferson Savarino and Baird — all played well against Toronto in his absence.

Everton Luiz also appears ready to return to the starting lineup after making a substitute appearance last week, but will Petke want to disrupt the defensive midfield pairing of Damir Kreilach and Nick Besler after back-to-back wins?

Friday's match is the first of three in nine days for Real Salt Lake. The latter two are against Montreal next Wednesday and the New York Red Bulls next Saturday.

Petke said he's mapped out a tentative lineup rotation for the three matches, but everything is predicated on how things unfold against Atlanta in this great test for his team.