While Minnesota is figuring things out and seems to be way behind the curve even for an expansion side, Chicago has been way behind the curve for years. That may be changing with the Fire bringing in Dax McCarty and Juninho to stabilize their central midfield.
That said, they have not exactly looked convincing this year. In their two games they stole a point against a Columbus Crew team that is breaking in a new back line and in the match last weekend versus Real Salt Lake, they scored on a weird play when forward Nemanja Nikolic scored from an offside position because a ball was deflected off of an RSL player making him eligible under the rules to play the ball. The second goal was nicer featuring midfielder Arturo Alvarez cutting through the Salt Lake 18 yard box while some sloppy defending allowed him to get a shot past keeper Nick Rimando. For their part, RSL was never in the game, they defended poorly and had difficulty getting anything going when they had the ball.
David Accam vs Tyrone Mears is a matchup that may play a pivotal role in the game. Accam is a speedy winger who has a great touch, close ball control, and likes to get in behind defenses. Coach Martino likes to have both Mears and Garza push forward in attack and the Atlanta right back will need to know where Accam is when Chicago wins the ball and looks to counter.
Accam scored 10 goals in 2015 shuffling between the wing and striker and followed with 9 goals in 2016 playing mostly on the wing. This season coach Veljko Paunovic looks committed to playing him outside where he is most effective and the revamped midfield have the Fire looking more competent connecting the defense with the attack. If Chicago can force turnovers and get the ball to Accam while Atlanta regroups it could create some dangerous situations for United.
On the other side of the field, Tito Villalba vs Brandon Vincent will be an interesting matchup. Villalba never really settled into the game against New York, the narrowness of the pitch at Bobby Dodd and trying to establish chemistry with his teammates neutralized his talent in week one. Against Minnesota, it looked like it would be more of the same from Villalba but he played more confidently and threatened at times in the game when he had the ball against a disjointed defense. He looked especially dangerous when he got the ball and was able to run at defenders as opposed to trying to collect long passes, which were mostly over-hit, against New York.
Chicago second year left-back Brandon Vincent is quick and has improved his game since last year when he lost his starting spot in the lineup and was shuffled in and out of the starting 11. That said, Vincent likes to get forward and the space that he leaves when Atlanta gets the ball in transition should open things up for Villalba and give him some opportunities to create a little magic for United.
The Midfield Battle
Atlanta likes to keep the ball on the ground and move quickly through midfield. United is not necessarily looking to hold possession and string together a lot of passes, rather it looks to press for turnovers and strike quickly while their opponents’ defense tries to regroup. Dax McCarty and Juninho have made their careers out of snuffing out attacks and clogging the center of the pitch. If they are able to do that and keep United from getting the ball to the attacking players, Atlanta may have to find another way to create chances.
A big 3 points
In case you have not looked at the schedule lately, this is the last Atlanta United home game until April 30. Four road games in a row is a rough stretch for any MLS team. The league is known for having a tremendous home-field advantage with travel playing a big role in how teams preform on the road. The Five Stripes will go to Seattle, Toronto, Montreal, and Real Salt Lake before coming back to Bobby Dodd to face DC United. All four of those teams made the playoffs last year and have some of the best players in the league on their rosters.
Getting a win before taking off on the road trip will at least send the team off on the right foot when they go on to play in some of the most hostile environments in MLS. While no team makes or misses the playoffs in April, getting three points at home this week will help keep the United in a good position in the table for when they return to Atlanta.