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Atlanta United at Chicago Fire: What to watch for

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Absences, a return, and Josef Martinez has blue hair

MLS: New York City FC at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United will travel to Toyota Park this weekend where we’ll be 106 miles* from Chicago, we’ve got a full Yamil Asad, half a game (or more, or less, we’ll see) of Miguel Almiron, it’ll be afternoon and Josef Martinez has blue hair (I’m not kidding, he looks like if my childhood hero Captain Planet played soccer). Hit it!

The good news is that Atlanta doesn’t have to play the Vancouver Whitecaps again this week, the bad news is that they’ll be headed to the windy suburb with a depleted roster thanks to the international break. With Miguel Almiron and Kenwyne Jones missing, the Five Stripes will have to find two replacements for players who have featured heavily this season. On top of that, Chicago will just be missing Dax McCarty. While the diminutive midfielder leaves big shoes to fill, the Fire have decent replacements and will be featuring their full compliment of forwards and wingers.

Anyway, here’s three things to watch for...

The Untouchables

Atlanta United may have had over 70% of possession against the Vancouver Whitecaps last weekend but the home team had 100% of the Human Spirit. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez said as much in practice on Thursday when he mentioned that “we lost intensity at times during that game and that’s something we know we have to correct.”

Greg Garza echoed those comments when asked about what Atlanta needs to do to keep early leads like the one they lost in Vancouver saying, “I think it would be concentration. I think the games we have had the most concentration have been against the teams that have more talent than the teams we have lost concentration on.” Chicago has plenty of talent and Atlanta will have to put the last match completely behind them in order to bounce back, play with intensity, and concentrate this weekend.

Home Alone

Last time these two teams faced off Chicago didn’t have a full squad for 79 minutes and were crushed like a child trying to hold a slice of deep dish pizza. On Thursday, Tata Martino wasn’t taking any insinuation that the 4-0 drubbing of Chicago in March was solely the result of the red card early in the match. He told reporters, “in the last game we caused them to go down to 10 men by us having a one on one and drawing a foul so it wasn’t as if it was undeserved.”

Aside from the presumed number of players on the field (but with MLS who knows?), something else will be new: 32 year old midfielder Bastian Schweinstieger. Tata discussed the impact that Schweinstieger has on planning for the game saying “it’s evident now how important he is for Chicago because they’re a team that’s grown a lot since he’s arrived so we’re going to make sure we’re defending him so that he’s not able to start plays for them.”

Garza spoke to reporters about what makes the midfield Mozart great saying “he’s just tactically genius.” He went on to say, “if you allow him to pick his head up he’s going to find the guys where ever they are on the field.” Basti has won a World Cup, Bundesliga titles, and the Champions League and while he may not lead the Chicago Fire to another World Cup win, shutting him down will be critical to a good result for United. Garza noted that the team will need to take him out of the game with their pressure saying, “as long as we have pressure on him in the middle and we keep his head down and not let him make those perfect passes.”

Dax McCarty’s Day Off

In the 11 games that the Chicago Fire have played with Schweinstieger, they have allowed 11 goals. Of those games seven have been at home and the team only their opposition score four goals. That’s not a lot of spuds going in the ole’ potato sack for teams visiting Toyota Park. Chicago like to play a more open style than teams that Atlanta struggled to breakdown like DC United and Vancouver. But this is a team that can shut down a game.

That might be more challenging this week with the Fire missing Dax McCarty for the second straight match. They didn’t miss him against 10 and then 9 man Orlando City Soccer Club last weekend, but Atlanta might give them more trouble in the midfield than Orlando did. In his place, Chicago may start Matt Polster or Juninho. Neither player can win balls and shield the defense like Dax, but with Almiron possibly only playing limited minutes, United may not be able to fully exploit his absence.

In his place, Tata has played Julian Gressel as a central attacking midfielder which hasn’t worked. Gressel just isn’t at the level to step in and replace Almiron when the Paraguayan can’t play. Another option, and a really sneaky smart move, might be playing Kevin Kratz in the role. That said, Josef Martinez didn’t dye his hair blue for nothing and I think if he’s fit enough to start Tata will want his best players on the field. That means either moving Gressel to attacking mid and playing Tito Villalba at right wing or moving Tito or Gressel to left wing and playing Asad centrally in midfield.

Whatever lineup Martino puts out, United will have their work cut out for them. Even though Atlanta overwhelmingly dominated possession last weekend, they failed to convert their time on the ball into goals. Asked about what Atlanta United needs to do to breakdown a tough defensive side coach Martino told reporters, “I think what we need to do is be more effective with our chances and create more chances and opportunities on goal.” If Josef Martinez is back and able to start Atlanta will have its most potent scoring threat in a match that they’ll look to put the ball in the net rather than pass it around their opposition’s 18 yard box.

*Toyota Park isn’t exactly that far from Chicago but there’s no way I was going to write this without forcing a Blues Brothers reference in here.