What Are They All About? Atlanta United
Some much needed rest. This past weekend the Chicago Fire enjoyed a break in the MLS schedule an d it could not have come at a better time. Winless since May 26th, the Fire have found themselves amidst an injury spell that has left the squad especially thin. They are also under increasing pressure to identify targets in the upcoming transfer window. Rumored additions such as Fernando Torres and Iker Casillas are looking elsewhere to extend their careers, while Polish attacker Przemyslaw Frankowski also has offers that appear more lucrative than what Chicago can offer him. The Fire will have to continue to hobble along and hope that the off-week put enough juice back in their legs to finish a second consecutive six-match month. Next up, a trip to Atlanta in the US Open Cup on Wednesday (6:30 CT on Chicago-Fire.com).
Atlanta United enter Wednesday’s fixture on a decidedly different trajectory than Chicago. Undefeated in five matches, Tata Martino’s men find themselves atop the Supporters Shield standings and look uncatchable in the East. A two-match road stint against their closest competitors, Columbus and NYCFC, saw them emerge with four points and Wednesday’s Open Cup encounter marks the first of three consecutives home matches for the Five Stripes. Mercedes-Benz Stadium has become a fortress for Atlanta and this round of sixteen match up will surely break the previous Open Cup attendance record (set by Seattle against Chicago in the 2011 final). Additionally, Martino has already shown that he is taking the competition seriously by starting a near choice starting eleven against Charleston in the last round. If CONCACAF is the goal, the Open Cup is perhaps the easiest avenue to achieving it. All signs point to an Atlanta victory, but this competition frequently throws the script out of the window. Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Atlanta Form Guide (All Competitions): W-D-W-W-D
Previous Result: A 2-0 away win against Columbus.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Guzan; Ambrose, Gonzalez Pirez, Parkhurst, Escobar; Larentowicz, Nagbe; Barco, Almiron, Gressel; Martinez
Strengths: This will be the second meeting between these two sides this season (Atlanta defeated Chicago 2-1 at Toyota Park in May) and our readers have come to know Martino’s style and tactics well. Last time around we highlighted Atlanta’s unrelenting attack, the arrival of Barco, and a strong mentality from everyone from the kit-man to the ownership. All of those remain strengths but let’s see where else they might succeed on Wednesday.
Shoot on Sight: Atlanta United currently leads the league in goals scored—notching thirty-three in sixteen matches—and boasts the current golden boot leader. Josef Martinez accounts for fourteen of those strikes, Miguel Almiron has six tallies and seven assists, and the remainder are split amongst Barco, Villalba, and the supporting Five Stripes cast. A large part of their goal scoring success seems to be due to a policy that has them shoot from every possible angle the moment they get into the final third. Almiron and Martinez have combined for over 100 shots this season and the recent matches against NYCFC and Columbus marked the first encounters that Atlanta has not notched double digit shot attempts. Additionally, Martinez’s tallies have come from just thirty-eight shots, highlighting the clinical nature of the Venezuelan. Lastly, Martinez and Almiron have twenty-five and twenty-four shots on target respectively, a stat bettered only by Houston’s Alberth Elis. When you couple all of that with the fact that Chicago is among the top quarter of teams in goals conceded category, the Fire should be worried.
Huh, Maybe They Knew What They Were Doing: In our last preview we noted that Atlanta utilized all of its resources on acquiring attack minded players while failing to reinforce their back line and find an adequate replacement for Carlos Carmona. Well, since then, Jeff Larentowicz has proven us wrong by stringing together a level of consistency few thought was possible, Darlington Nagbe has added some defensive tracking to his game, and the acquisition of Rosario native Franco Escobar at centerback has panned out wonderfully. As a result, Atlanta has allowed the second fewest goals in the East and thus has the best goal differential in the league.
Perhaps even worse for Chicago, Martino’s utilization of the 4-2-3-1 (or even the rare usage of the 3-4-3) has resulted in forcing teams to play wide, an area in which the Fire have struggled this season. The likes of Nikolic and Gordon have thrived on build up play worked centrally and Chicago lack out-and-out wingers. Even more limiting, Atlanta’s danger on the counter often forces a conservative approach for those teams that do have functional wingers and outside backs. It could be a very long night for the visitors who have struggled to create throughout the campaign.
Weaknesses: Well, our central weakness from the last preview was overturned in this fixture’s strengths column, but we’ll give it a go anyway. Let’s see where Atlanta might struggle on Wednesday.
We Prefer the Ball on the Ground: If there’s any significant down side to this Five stripes side it’s that they just can’t seem to figure out how to defend set plays as a unit. Brad Guzan had perhaps the performance of the season against NYCFC in terms of saves, but were it not for his interventions on free kicks and corners, Atlanta could have lost that encounter by a significant margin. The tying goal for NYCFC eventually came on such a corner which saw an unmarked David Villa flick a header on for an equally unmarked Alex Callens. Chicago scored in similar fashion in the first meeting between these two sides in May when a deep throw-in was laid off to an onrushing Kevin Ellis for a top corner finish. Arial deliveries against this Atlanta side led to goals for Montreal, Orlando, and Kansas City as well. Failure to adequately deal with the ball in the air is a theme that needs to be exploited by the likes of Solignac and Gordon if Chicago is to get anything from this one.
Prediction: Although there is always a chance of magic in the Open Cup, this one is looking bleak for Chicago. For the second time in as many seasons the Fire will exit the competition at an early stage. Atlanta 3-1 Chicago. A Barco hat trick for the Five Stripes and a consolation goal for the visitors.