After a three-game undefeated homestand, the Fire head back out on the road, visiting an Atlanta United team that remains undefeated at home. While both clubs have just a single loss on their records, both Ezra Hendrickson as well as Atlanta Head Coach Gonzalo Pineda will be asking their teams to step up and improve on recent results, as both have conceded late goals leading to draws.
Despite a number of high-profile names on the roster – headlined by Thiago Almada, the first active MLS player to win a World Cup – the Fire are facing an Atlanta United team still trying to make the case to themselves and their fans that the post-Josef United are ready to rejoin the MLS elite after a relative spell of mediocrity that saw them miss the playoffs two of the past three seasons, finishing last year out of the playoffs and a single point ahead of the Fire.
All time: 4-1-6, 16GF, 18GA, (13 pts out of 33)
Last Match: July 30, 2022: Fire 0 – 0 Atlanta at Soldier Field
Record: 4W-3D-1L (15pts)
Visiting Toronto last week, the Five Stripes managed a draw without Thiago Almada (injury) and Franco Ibarra (suspension), but much like the Fire’s recent performance, it stings as two points lost rather than a point gained, having to settle for a draw after conceding the tying goal deep into second-half stoppage time. That marked the second draw in a row for Atlanta after tying NYCFC the week prior, managing to both score and concede while down to 10 men after Ibarra was handed a red card.
Once again the Fire managed to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory, conceding twice to the Union after going up 2-0, marking the third time this season that the Fire have found themselves tied after going up by two goals, though they did manage to secure a win off a late Kei Kamara goal in Miami during their last game on the road after conceding an earlier lead.
Atlanta United are a team that is trying to cement its identity in the post-Josef Martínez era: On one hand, they’ve shown flashes of greatness: An impressive 3-0 win in Charlotte where they didn’t let the home team see the light of day on Matchday 3, followed up by a resounding 5-1 victory at home against the Timbers a week later. On the other, they followed up that victory with a 6-1 defeat in Columbus and managed to play a pretty pedestrian Toronto team to draw both home and away.
If the Fire are on a quest to show that they’re a better team than they were last year, this game against Atlanta would be a great time to make that case: The team’s 2-4-1 record is identical to the 2022 edition of the team after 7 games, and it was their 8th match of the season that saw the team start a four-game losing streak that would become part of a stretch that saw the team go 91 days between wins.
Atlanta, however, may prove a challenging place for the Fire to show they’re on a different track, as they’ve lost to Atlanta every time they’ve visited the city for MLS play (0-0-4), although they did have a victory over Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium during the US Open Cup Round of 16 in 2018.
Despite the different narratives around the two teams, and the Fire’s struggles when visiting Mercedes-Benz, the teams are statistically closer than you might expect: Using data from American Soccer Analysis, Atlanta’s expected goal differential (xGD) is just a hair above the Fire’s when looking on a 90-minute basis (0.205 vs. 0.184), and a key part of the reason Atlanta is in 3rd place and the Fire are in 8th is explained by Atlanta’s game-in-hand and the fact that they’ve significantly outperformed their expected goal differential while the Fire have underperformed theirs.
Despite that, given the home side’s record against the Fire, Atlanta fans – somewhere in the vicinity of 40,000 of them – will be entering Mercedes Benz on Sunday expecting a win. Can the Fire make them leave disappointed and get their first away win against the Five Stripes in MLS play?
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
Lineup notes: If Giakoumakis can’t make it as striker, look for Miguel Berry instead
If no Almada, probably lineup like vs. TO: Sejdić plays CAM in his spot; #20 Matheus Rossetto starts where Sejdić normally plays
Questionable: Thiago Almada, Franco Ibarra, Georgios Giakoumakis
Out: Brad Guzan, Osvaldo Alonso
Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda prefers to roll out his team in a 4-2-3-1 formation, much like the Fire. Unlike the Fire, however, there is no question or controversy over who the starting #10 central attacking midfielder is: Thiago Almada, if healthy – which he appears to be after missing Atlanta’s last match.
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) and is tied in 3rd for key passes (18), though if he can’t set someone else up, he’s more than capable of scoring and already 4 goals on the season (tied for 6th place in the league).
Around him, new Designated Player Giorgos Giakoumakis has been excellent at striker, and Luiz Araújo has continued his strong play from last season.
Actually, the team’s starting roster has been strong throughout – it’s just that they haven’t always had their starters. Last week, Toronto had a comparatively easy time playing through Atlanta’s defensive midfield with Franco Ibarra serving a one-game suspension. Similarly, Almada, Giakoumakis and Miles Robinson were on international duty when the team lost 6-1 to Columbus, leading Pineda to roll out his side out in a 4-3-3 which we haven’t often seen with this edition of the team.
Given that he’ll have all – or almost all – his starters available outside of GK Brad Guzan, the team will probably stick to their familiar 4-2-3-1 formation that Fire fans are familiar with.
Out: Victor Bezerra, Jairo Torres?
Questionable: Gastón Giménez, Federico Navarro, Kei Kamara?
Last week, we mentioned that Ezra Hendrickson will have a day of reckoning to face when his entire lineup is healthy given the strong play of replacements and congestion at certain positions, but he likely can postpone making major decisions for at least one more week: Although we saw the return of Xherdan Shaqiri to the lineup off the bench, he’s still not 100%, and the continued absence of Torres, combined with the likely absence of Giménez to injury simplifies Hendrickson’s choices in the defensive midfield.
Though it isn’t out of the question that Hendrickson will try a new formation or tactics – last year, both Gutiérrez and Shaqiri had strong moments against Atlanta, even in the 4-1 loss away – the desire to limit the chances of reinjury to players just coming back combined with the likely absence of players like Gastón suggests the coach will stick with the 4-2-3-1 formation that Hendrickson’s footballing heart calls home.
Starting with the easiest position, Brady is an obvious lock at GK. His play has continued to be strong, and although he doesn’t have the impressive résumé of clean sheets that Gaga enjoyed at this point last year, that’s largely due to the fact that the team hasn’t been playing a desperate, defend-with-eleven-at-all-times approach to the game as they were then, evidenced by the fact that the team has 11 goals to its credit after 7 matches this season, compared to just 5 at the same point last year.
In front of him, the backline should remain unchanged from the last game: Dean remains a strong option off the bench, and Miguel Ángel Navarro will start at left back; centrally, Czichos is indispensable, and Terán’s play has been very strong of late (and his early exit last week was precautionary so he should be healthy). Souquet has adapted quickly to MLS, and his speed and play with the ball give the team a right wingback in a sense they haven’t had in recent seasons.
In the defensive midfield, Federico Navarro looks like he may be ready to return – if he can, he will, given how he can change the game. Alongside him, assuming Giménez is out with injury, Hendrickson will likely play Mauricio Pineda, though Javiar Casas Jr. is an intriguing, more offensively-minded option.
Kamara’s play should see him start at striker, though there’s a certain poetic sensibility to seeing Koutsias get his first MLS start opposite Giakoumakis. Behind him, Mueller remains a lock at left wing, Maren Haile-Selassie, fresh off his first MLS goal, should start on the opposite side. Assuming that Hendrickson is being conservative with Shaqiri’s return from injury, Gutiérrez should start at the 10 position, thereby postponing making a choice about how to balance Shaqiri’s pedigree and Guti’s strong play for at least one more match.
Fire Keys to Victory
- Keep a 0-0 Mentality: After the last match, Fabian Herbers discussed how essential it is that the team treat every match like it’s 0-0 whether they’re ahead or not. That’s especially important in matches like this one, where they’re facing a team with a high-octane offense away. Staying sharp, avoiding mistakes and taking advantage of every opportunity will be essential to the Fire’s chances for victory.
- Show Creativity: Thiago Almada is one of, if not the, best, most creative players in MLS, but the Fire have creative and capable attackers on their end. While defensive competence is always essential in soccer, they should make sure that they use their playmakers to bring the game to Atlanta as well.
- Use the Bench Wisely: As odd as it might sound, the Fire might be entering the match with a deeper bench than Atlanta. Shaqiri is a proven difference-maker, Koutsias is talented and ready to make his mark
There are reasons to be concerned by the Fire’s midfield problems due to the injuries, though in Javi Casas we trust. I’m also scared of Thiago Almada.
Prediction: Atlanta 3-1 Fire
“Why go to the party? Why go to the party at all?” I predicted a collapse for Atlanta before the season, but I’ve been handily proven wrong. And with Giakoumakis already getting into the mix, the Fire will struggle to hold him off. Especially if our fullbacks continue to perform as they have. Fire might do the thing they always do tho, so I’m sure it’ll be fun for about 60 minutes.
Prediction: Atlanta 4-2 Fire
Prediction: Atlanta 0-2 Fire
Both teams are technically in form at the moment but every Fire fan knows how not good we are away from home. It’s just hard to see us get an away win when we can barely even get a home win when we’re already a few goals ahead.
Prediction: Atlanta 2-1 Fire
Atlanta have been outplaying their core numbers, and the Fire have been underplaying them. While it’s easy to say “typical Fire,” and Mercedes Benz Stadium is not exactly a friendly confine for visitors, both Guti, Muller (in his first game in a Fire uniform) and Shaqiri all had strong matches in Atlanta last year. I’ve got a good feeling about this.
Prediction: Atlanta 1-2 Fire
Greek guy sucks anyways.
Prediction: Atlanta 0-3 Fire
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Sunday, April 23, 2023, 3:30PM CT
Location: Mercedes Benz Stadium, Atlanta, GA
Forecast: 68’ expected at kick off, with 33% humidity, winds W at 9-24mph and 48% cloud cover and no chance of precipitation
TV: Apple TV – Free (no subscription required), FS1