The Chicago Fire take on Atlanta United tonight in what is the first game at Mercedes Benz Arena in nearly six months. I spoke with David McFarland of Dirty South Soccer to discuss what is the second match of the season for both sides.
After winning the 2018 MLS Cup and making it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final in 2019, Atlanta United had a forgettable 2020 season which saw the team sack their manager Frank de Boer and finish 12th in the East. But with the return of 2018 MVP Josef Martínez from an ACL injury and a new manager in Gabriel Heinze, Five Stripes fans have hope heading into 2021.
“Heinze should land Atlanta a playoff spot by a comfortable margin.”, McFarland said when speaking of his expectations of this 2021 Atlanta United side. “Whether or not [they] can make it happen depends on how long it takes for the players to adapt to his style and whether Josef [Martínez] can rebound to his best. Anything less than a playoff spot is a massive failure.”
Atlanta’s Season Thus Far
So far, so good for Heinze, as Atlanta has not lost a competitive fixture under the Argentine. Two 1-0 victories against Costa Rican side Alajualense in the CONCACAF Champion’s League were followed up by a solid 0-0 draw at Orlando City.
“Taking back a point from Orlando is undoubtedly a success. [We] also beat Alajualense and handed them their first loss in months. Scoring, however, has been a bit of a challenge with only one open play goal to Atlanta’s name so far.”
And Atlanta has had an issue with their attack over the last year. The 2020 side was the worst team in MLS since 2017 at accruing goals added (g+) in the final third and was the second-worst 2020 side in buildup play, which measures g+ via passes and pass receipts in the first two thirds of the pitch. Will the return of Martínez help that Atlanta attack?
“It hasn’t [helped] so far.” McFarland said. “Josef is looking far from his best. That’s understandable, however, and it’s a process to recover from an ACL tear. I’m confident the goals will come as Heinze’s style of play becomes more natural.”
Heinze was the natural selection as Atlanta aims to return to the glory days experienced under Tata Martino, who comes from the same Marcelo Bielsa coaching tree as Heinze.
“On-pitch action sees Atlanta looking to control possession and play a high line, albeit without much final third action. [We] are yet to concede, but only have one open play goal scored in three games. Still, players are not yet in form after the long off-season and once they further adapt to Heinze’s style, the goals should come.”
How the Fire Match Up
Atlanta defense good. Offense bad. This goes directly against the Fire’s style of play, which features an attack that can score goals at any moment but a defense always prone to unforced errors and mistakes.
“Robert Berić will cause Atlanta the most problems.” McFarland said of the Fire’s leading goal scorer in 2020. “The Five Stripes haven’t had to deal with a forward of [his] profile and quality and if Atlanta’s center back duo can’t keep track of him, it could be a long night for Atlanta.”
David may have a point as Berić himself achieved 1.3 xG versus New England last weekend. Atlanta hasn’t allowed that to any team they’ve faced in a match so far this season.
David: 3-1 Atlanta
Justin: 2-1 Atlanta
How To Watch
Kickoff is at 7 PM CT tonight. Fans outside the Chicago DMA can watch on ESPN+, while fans in the Chicago area can stream the game on CFFCLive.com.