What Are They All About? Atlanta United
Winding down. In their most recent league match, the Chicago Fire lost on the road to DC United by a scoreline of 2-1. A brace from Wayne Rooney negated Raheem Edwards’ opener as the visitors notched their seventeenth loss of the season and forty-fifth in three seasons under the stewardship of Veljko Paunovic and Nelson Rodriguez. There were certainly bright spots visible from Chicago, but the lack of any true competitive motivation coupled with DC’s drive towards the postseason put the result in the category of inevitability. With just two matches remaining in the season, sights are firmly set on next year for the Fire as key offseason decisions on and off the field loom large. Prior to their closing match at Toyota Park at the end of the month, they’ll visit Atlanta United this Sunday (2:00 CT on ESPN).
Tata Martino and Atlanta United find themselves in a situation that is diametrically opposite to that of Chicago’s in every way imaginable. The Five Stripes are setting records left and right, find themselves fighting for two trophies, are landing signings that other franchises can only secure in FIFA manager mode, and have developed a style of play that teams across the world are talking about. While their head coach has yet to commit to a future at the club, the mentality surrounding this squad is one of focus on the now, a testament to the professionalism of everyone involved with the organization. They’ll see Sunday as an opportunity for relief against a side that is, well, just woeful and three points might just secure a trophy. Can Chicago muster enough of a performance to play spoiler, or will they once again be a step on the way to the podium? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Atlanta Form Guide (All Competitions): W-L-W-W-W
Previous Result: A 2-1 home victory over New England.
Formation: 3-4-3; Guzan; Larentowicz, Parkhurst, Pirez; Gressel, Nagbe, Remedi, Bello; Villalba, Martinez, Almiron
Strengths: For the last league encounter between these two opponents, we highlighted Atlanta’s goal scoring ability—a product of a league high shots on frame tally—and the success associated with a front office that is well oiled. A league high sixty-seven goals and the announcement of acquiring River Plate’s Pity (to arrive in January as Miguel Almiron’s replacement) shows that those strengths remain, but as the season comes to a close there are a few other aspects coming to the fore. Let’s take a look.
Records and Trophies: This Atlanta side is one that boasts the current MLS all-time goal scorer, Josef Martinez; can tie the MLS record regular season points total this weekend and pass it on the final match day; can pass the all-time single-season win count this weekend; continues to shatter attendance records; can potentially finish second in the all-time single goals-scored category; has the reigning MLS Rookie of the Year (Julian Gressel) as well as the Newcomer of the Year (Miguel Almiron) firmly cemented into their lineup; and oh yeah, could clinch the Supporters Shield with a victory over Chicago if the Red Bulls lose to Philadelphia on Sunday. The fact of the matter is that we don’t have to analyze their system or style of play (we’ve done that twice this season if you care to take a look), this is a side that just needs to be admired. MLS might not be blessed with a team like this for a long time to come, enjoy it while it’s here.
Weaknesses: Although there is not much that can be done against this Five Stripes side, last time out we tried to highlight their inability to defend dangerous aerial threats—both due to their lack of height and their preference for a wider and more spread out organizational style—and their inefficiency there was evident in the match. That avenue of success remains open for the Fire but let’s see what else might work.
The Serbian Connection: The way that Atlanta United are set up, Martino’s free-flowing, quick passing, and high energy 3-4-3, leaves them significantly exposed at the back. This is especially true in the first few seconds of Atlanta regaining possession as they often look to build directly from the back and if Aleksandar Katai and Nemanja Nikolic have a quality match and mirror the high press exhibited by the Red Bull forwards in their recent victory over Atlanta, Chicago could just shock the hosts. The duo’s combined thirty-seven goals and seven assists account for an overwhelming majority of Chicago’s attacking production and the space made available by Tata’s style should provide Katai with ample opportunity to weave his way through an aging and less than spry back line.
Nikolic also seems to have a distinct knack of being dangerous in this fixture, having scored or assisted in three of the four all-time meetings between these two clubs. His ability to get in behind Atlanta’s high line could be the difference in this match. Although he’ll likely be whistled offside on a plethora of occasions, all it takes is one run onto a decent through ball from Katai to change the contour of the encounter. If he can keep up a quick tempo and high press, there is something for Chicago to take from this match.
Go at the Veterans: Also of note, both Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz—Tata’s preferred center back partners for Leandro Gonzalez Perez—are one yellow card away from suspension. This puts them in a precarious position as they’ll need to play more conservatively in order to avoid missing the closing match of the season, a match they’ll desperately need to win if the Supporters Shield race is not decided this weekend. The aforementioned threat of Katai and Nikolic will be given an extra boost for danger in this situation.
The Chicago Way: While we do not condone violent action or brute force, this is a match that will need an extra presence of physicality from the Fire players. In addition to the high press, organization against the counter, and the clogging of midfield to negate Atlanta’s possession advantage, the breaking up of plays through fouls and the dark arts of time wasting, off the ball nudges, and perhaps even a little smack talk need to make an appearance in this one. Aside from salvaging a little bit of pride at the end of the season and showing that they still have some bite, the prevention of free-flowing soccer is the only way of stopping Atlanta. The number of fouls and yellow cards accumulated by the visitors will have an inverse correlation to the number of goals scored by the hosts.
AlmirNon: Although Atlanta won their last match against the Revs, the result was met with mixed emotions as their Paraguayan starlet, Miguel Almiron, left the field with an injury in the thirtieth minute. A tweaked hamstring in transition dropped him to the floor and he had his head in hands as he realized the injury will likely keep him out for a few weeks. It is the second consecutive season that the midfielder will miss the tail end of the season, and perhaps his last regular season matches as an Atlanta player. All reports suggest that he will be joining Arsenal in January and if Atlanta swing and miss in the playoffs again, his last action in a Five Stripes shirt could very well be a forgettable one. Either way, he won’t be on the field on Sunday and that will benefit Chicago as Barco has not fully grown into his expected role in the side.
I Like to Soccer, Can I Come Back Please?: The nod to expiring contracts makes its appearance yet again. We have highlighted in recent weeks that around half of the players on the roster are on option years or out of contract at the end of the season. As Nelson Rodriguez enters his three-year plan, those players will need to show that they can contribute to it and preventing Atlanta from winning the Supporters Shield on their watch could be an asterisk on that claim.
Prediction: There is too much at stake for Atlanta and not enough quality, motivation, or pride present in this Chicago side to prevent the inevitable. Atlanta United 5-1 Chicago. A Martinez hat trick and a Barco brace for the hosts, Johan Kappelhof with a headed goal from a set piece for the visitors.