The start of midweek matches means that the Fire don’t have much time to wallow in sorrows as they return home to host Atlanta United for the second match between the two clubs this year.
While the Fire return home to shake off another loss courtesy of a late-game collapse, Atlanta will be looking to continue the form they found during their 4-0 victory Wednesday before looking forward to having a little extra time on their hands as one of the MLS clubs no longer active in U.S. Open Cup competition.
All time: 4W-1D-7L, 17GF, 20GA, (13 pts out of 36)
Last Match: April 23, 2023: Atlanta 2 – 1 Fire at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, GA
Record: 6W-3D-4L (21pts)
Atlanta’s firepower was on full display on Wednesday as they cruised to a 4-0 victory with many of their big names scoring – Almada, Wolf and Giakoumakis, alongside homegrown player Tyler Wolff. The win was much needed to Atlanta, who had previously dropped their past four matches across all competitions, starting with a loss to lower-division Memphis 901 FC on April 26.
Plus ça change. The FIre suffered their first loss since Frank Klopas took over while in Charlotte, a city where they’d previously won in last year’s inaugural meetup between the two clubs. The team managed to go up 1-0, then conceded twice in the match’s final half hour.
Atlanta United’s most recent victory going into Wednesday’s matchup against Charlotte was their 2-1 win over the Fire in Atlanta on April 23. The Fire will be looking to avenge that loss and protect their undefeated record when playing at home.
The Fire should have reason for confidence: The Fire are 4-1-1 when hosting Atlanta, with their only defeat at home against Atlanta coming in 2018 – and a month later the Fire returned the favor, getting their only victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in U.S. Open Cup play.
Although Atlanta’s victory on Wednesday certainly staunched the bleeding, they remain a team trying to find its level – having, on one hand, capable of commanding victories – like their 4-0 win on Wednesday – at the feet exciting, talented young players like Thiago Almada and Giorgos Giakoumakis, while and on the other, they team that missed the playoffs two of the past three seasons that just snapped a four-game losing streak.
A big part of Atlanta’s trouble has been play on the road, having won only one away game all season – March 11 at Charlotte, a team that rolled up the Five Stripes last weekend.
Atlanta’s troubles on the road meet the Fire’s fortress at home – will those trends hold for the Fire’s last home game of the month, entering a stretch where the team won’t see many opportunities to play in front of a home crowd?
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
Out: Ozzie Alonso, Brad Guzan, Erik Lopez, Amar Sejdić, Caleb Wiley
Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda plays his team in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and the lack of a midweek match since Atlanta are no longer in Cup contention makes lineup choices obvious: You play your best.
Atlanta’s best options at striker, Giorgios Giakoumakis went down with a hamstring injury when his team last met the Fire and finally made it back on the pitch on Wednesday, playing 37 minutes as a substitute. Given how crucial he is to Atlanta’s attack – by far their most clinical finisher – Pineda is likely to ease him back to avoid the risk of re-injury. It’s likely that he’ll available off the bench if needed but Miguel Berry will get the start again.
Behind him, the attacking midfield trio of Derrick Etienne Jr., Thiago Almada, and Luiz Araújo has been a lock when available – though Araújo won’t be available much longer, given a pending sale to Brazilian club Flamengo. Thiago Almada remains one of if not the best central attacking midfielders that the league has seen and if he’s not playing in Europe by the end of the next transfer window will almost certainly be a leading candidate for league MVP.
I normally don’t like repeating myself but in this case, a slight update of what I wrote before is the best way to make my point:
Atlanta’s offense isn’t quite as simple as “get the ball to Almada,” but it also doesn’t have to be radically more complicated than that. Almada’s distribution has been nothing short of excellent: he’s currently tied for the league lead in assists
(5)(7) and is tied in 3rdthe league leader in key passes (18)(31), though if he can’t set someone else up, he’s more than capable of scoring and already 45 goals on the season (tied for 6th5th place in the league).
Behind them, Franco Ibarra, who has worked his way back from a concussion, will likely start, especially considering that frequent starter Amar Sejdić is unavailable. His likely replacement, Matheus Rossetto, has played well in his absence.
Playing ahead of Quintin Westberg in the backline, Andrew Gutman will all but certainly start after serving a one-game suspension on Wednesday, with Caleb Wiley playing for the United States U-20s, and alongside him, Purata, Robinson, and Lennon have typically played well throughout the season.
Out: Jonathan Dean, Chris Mueller, Carlos Terán
The busy stretch of matches that the Fire find themselves in has meant that the Fire will likely stick with what they know for the time being.
Unfortunately for the Fire, injuries and schedule congestion likely make Frank Klopas’s job more difficult than it need be, but given the loss on Wednesday, he will likely want to roll out as strong of a lineup as he can against Atlanta in one of the team’s few home matches over the coming weeks.
Kei Kamara was given the match on Wednesday off, not even appearing on the bench, and hopefully, he’ll be re-energized as the Fire would have likely had one, if not two additional goals with him on the pitch.
Shaqiri played well for the second game Wednesday and is slowly making a case to stay at the #10 role,
Gastón Giménez earned himself a one-match suspension so expect Jairo Torres to come in to the lineup and play alongside Federico Navarro, particularly as Fabian Herbers, who has also played in that role this season, is one yellow from a suspension himself.
With Pineda playing up front and Carlos Terán still out, Mauricio Pineda will likely get a start again, though this time at center back. It’s not entirely fair to say that Pineda’s play on Wednesday made the case for starting minutes, but at the same time: He was effective and played Klopas’s favorite trait, passion, getting back and making key plays on more than one occasion. We will likely be seeing a lot more of him (again). He’ll start alongside Rafael Czichos, Miguel Ángel Navarro, and Arnaud Souquet ahead of Chris Brady.
Since the Fire play again Wednesday, Klopas will have to manage the roster carefully – ideally, the Fire would put up a lead and he’d be able to look to the bench early, but that proved disastrous in Charlotte.
Fire Keys to Victory
- Just play two first halves: I don’t need to repeat the statistics of the Fire’s late blown leads, so I’m just going to put it this way: Play the first half of a soccer game, go back to the locker room, and play the first half of a soccer game. If the Fire had been doing that all season they’d be aiming for a Supporter’s Shield, not sneaking into the playoffs.
- Shaq rattle and roll: Shaqiri’s reemergence is becoming one of the stories of Frank Klopas’s tenure as interim head coach. Though he didn’t get an assist Wednesday, he certainly earned one with the way he played. The ways a re-energized Shaqiri changes the Fire are hard to overstate. Shaqiri Prime makes everyone around him more dangerous, changes the way teams approach defending against the Fire and thereby gives others more time and more space. If Klopas can keep up his role as Shaqiri Whisperer-In-Chief, the Fire are a different team.
- Bench press: The Fire need players coming off the bench to be capable, active contributors. Alonso Aceves looked like a player with the controller disconnected in FIFA leading to Atlanta’s second goal and Georgios Koutsias is starting to make a clear case for a lot more minutes… for Fire II. Schedule congestion makes using the bench essential, but the bench players need to play up to the challenge if the Fire are going to find any joy in the coming weeks.
Prediction: Fire 1-0 Atlanta
I’ve said this before, but I will no longer feel bad about losing for the rest of the season because we’ve got Klopas. The vibes are good and he’s helping to fix the mentality around the first team. However, I do think that we’ve got a shout in this one. Yes, Atlanta blitzed Colorado, but Colorado also sucks. So with Klopas at home, I’d give the Fire an edge. The only issue will be where the goals come from. I’d say at least one is gonna be Kamara.
Prediction: Fire 2-1 Atlanta
Massacre on Soldier Field, reparations for the heartbreak in Atlanta last month.
Prediction: Fire 3-1 Atlanta
Atlanta at this moment are just much more of a complete team than the Fire and it’s not really close. I do not expect the Fire to compete much in this match regardless of the earlier result between these teams.
Prediction: Fire 0-2 Atlanta
Fire will continue to take care of business at home. Klopas turns out to be the coach Shaqiri needed, and the Fire hand the Five Stripes their fifth loss.
Prediction: Fire 2-1 Atlanta
‘Cause the vibes need to get good again.
Prediction: Fire 2-0 Atlanta
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Saturday, May 20, 2023, 7:30 PM CT
Location: Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
Forecast: 59’ expected at kick-off, with 50% humidity, winds ENE at 5-10mph and 1% cloud cover, and 1% chance of precipitation
TV: Apple TV – MLS Season Pass
Radio: WLAS 890AM (English), TUDN 1200 AM (Spanish)