The Chicago Fire, unbeaten in five, will face their biggest test of the season so far when they take on high-flying Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Arena this Sunday. Atlanta, led by Argentina national team midfielder Thiago Almada, are having a great start to the season, and will provide a difficult task for a Fire team that has struggled to perform under pressure this year. To get some insight on this weekend’s opponent, we spoke with Sydney Hunte of Dirty South Soccer.
Last season, the Fire failed to beat Atlanta, losing 4-1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and drawing 0-0 at home. How has Atlanta changed since last season?
Well, there have been no catastrophic injuries…yet! Sure, Brad Guzan is out for the next couple of months, but outside of that, and a few relatively minor setbacks here and there, Atlanta have been in fairly good health. I suppose it’s a good place to remind readers that its 4-1 win last year saw Miles Robinson lost for the season, and having him back has been an enormous lift as he looks as if he hasn’t lost a step.
Secondly, Thiago Almada has been as good as advertised, if not better. I wrote about it at Dirty South Soccer, but the questions surrounding him are not “if” or “when” he’ll be gone in the summer transfer window, but “where” and “how much”. I’d like to think that there’s a possibility that Atlanta could get a loan back following a sale, but if it’s a club that will be playing Champions League football in 2023-24 (i.e. Napoli), then it’s probably not likely.
You also have the acquisition of Giorgos Giakoumakis, who’s scored in each of his 4 starts but came off against Toronto FC not long into the 2nd half due to a hamstring. Given that he’s filling the role Josef Martínez held for the club’s first 6 years of existence, the spotlight’s quite bright on him, but he’s been up to the task. The hope is that he remains healthy and that he can continue his strong run of form as he continues to settle into MLS.
Finally, the overall mindset among the team is set on simply erasing a tough campaign last year and setting their sights on a return to the playoffs in 2023. They’ve shown maybe a little bit more will than they did in 2022 (for example, beating the Red Bulls in the regular season for the first time ever and going toe-to-toe with NYCFC at Yankee Stadium). For now, at least, they have the look of a playoff team.
Atlanta now sits in 3rd place in the Eastern Conference. How have they looked in general this season?
I kind of answered it partially in the previous question, but at the risk of a massive generalization, I feel that it’s looked immensely better than last season. For starters, it’s 3-0-1 at home thanks to some free-kick wonders from Almada against San Jose (who have looked really good so far), taking it to a badly-injured Portland side (a match that featured another free-kick stunner from Almada), and gutting out a win against a Red Bulls team that, despite their struggles, had Atlanta’s number in previous years. Speaking to that latter point, I don’t know if last year’s Atlanta team wins that one.
Away from Mercedes-Benz, outside of an absolute stinker against a strong Columbus side with a number of players missing, Atlanta haven’t been terrible. It certainly should have beaten TFC at BMO Field; it also held a lead at NYCFC despite playing with 10 men but ultimately drew. Win at least one of those, and you’re in first place in the East and a point out of the Supporters’ Shield race.
After two draws on the road, Atlanta returns home for this match. How will they likely approach the game against the Fire?
That’s an interesting question since Atlanta have Open Cup on Wednesday against USL Championship team Memphis 901. I think from a lineup standpoint on Sunday, Gonzalo Pineda will insert a first-choice XI to allow him to play a few younger players in the midweek affair, given a derby at Nashville SC looming a few days after that. That said, I think it will feel that it’s the better side in this one and will like its chances, especially with a pair of in-form players in Giakoumakis and Almada (plus a sturdy presence in Franco Ibarra returning from a red-card suspension).
In addition to World Cup winner Thiago Almada who is coming back from injury, which players from Atlanta United should Fire fans keep a particular close eye on?
I mentioned Giakoumakis, Ibarra, and Robinson earlier, but Matheus Rossetto has been much improved in 2023. He’s received plenty of criticism for his play in previous years with the club, but he’s formed a fairly solid partnership with Ibarra in the middle of the park. It’s also likely that we see Chicago native Andrew Gutman make his first start since leaving right before halftime against Columbus due to an adductor injury; he played 25 minutes against TFC and was credited with an assist on Atlanta’s go-ahead goal in the 2nd half. I think after finding the net 4 times last year, he’ll be itching to open his account in his return to the starting XI – and at home, to boot.