Highs and Lows
The 2017 season has featured plenty of peaks and valleys for Atlanta United FC. The Five Stripes brought us one of the league’s most dynamic attacks when the season began, only to stutter through July and August. Conversely, an error-prone defense looked to be the main weakness early on, before finding their form during that same time when the attack dissipated. In all, AUFC hit this international break at 10-8-6, sitting sixth in the Eastern Conference, just above the so-called “red line” and in the playoffs.
Looking ahead, the month of September will likely decide Atlanta’s ultimate fate. With a slew of home games on the docket as the team begins their time at Mercedes Benz Stadium, September could bring us just about anything from United’s season falling by the wayside over the six match stretch, to potentially cruising towards a postseason.
Sitting on 36 points from 24 matches, Atlanta United are currently enjoying one of the best seasons in MLS expansion team history. But when looking at the imbalance between home and away matches played, there is much reason to believe that they could be much higher up the table come season’s end.
As we can see, United have played away from home far more often than anyone else in the conference. With MBS’ opening being delayed, the team was forced into a schedule that was front loaded with away matches. And this was no easy task for an expansion side playing in a league where home team’s are especially dominant.
Thus far, United’s away performances have predictably languished behind their fine form at home (6-2-1 at Bobby Dodd Stadium). But the reality is that no team in the league has played especially well on the road. By comparison to the rest of the East, only Supporters Shield favorites Toronto FC and deep-pocketed NYCFC are averaging more points per away match than Atlanta.
Now that MBS is ready, the home games will come fast and furious for AU. The rest of the season sees Atlanta playing eight of their final ten matches at home, beginning with those six consecutive home matches in 17 days later this month.
Should Atlanta simply maintain their home form from Bobby Dodd Stadium (2.1 points-per-match), they could easily shoot up as high as third in the conference, as AUFC’s points-per-game total would narrowly surpass the current averages of Chicago, Columbus, and New York Red Bulls.
However, should AUFC improve their current home form, we could even see Tata Martino’s side fighting for a first round postseason bye. United could beat their previous home form by going 6-0-0, 5-1, or 4-0-2 this month at MBS. 4-0-2 would likely send Atlanta comfortably into third spot in the East. And 5-0 or 5-1 would see Atlanta move to 1.7 or 1.8 points per match, just behind or even with second place NYCFC’s current average.
Of course, form varies and it’s not realistic to think that won’t be the case for United’s competitors. But while there is no way to 100% predict where Atlanta will end up in the table in several weeks time, we quite clearly see an opportunity for United to at the very least feel quite comfortable about a playoff appearance following this stretch of play.
Sep. 10 vs. FC Dallas (9-7-10, 6th in Western Conference)
Oscar Pareja’s side have been a consistent contender for an MLS Cup over the past three years. But that doesn’t look to be the case this season. After a solid start, FCD have managed just three points from their last seven matches, getting shut out three times in the process. They’ve also managed just one win in their last eight away matches.
The attack has been putrid compared to past seasons. New striker signing Cristian Colman has been a disappointment, scoring just two goals all season and seeing the Young Designated Player spending most of his time on the bench. And Mauro Diaz, once considered among the best attacking midfielder’s in MLS, has been a shell of himself this season coming off an achilles injury in 2016. USA international Kellyn Acosta has also fallen out of form, which has had an impact on the side’s fortunes both from an attacking and defensive standpoint.
This was looking like a truly marquis matchup earlier in the season. But Dallas’ recent struggles should give United fans confidence. If Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Michael Parkhurst and company can help prolong FCD’s woes in attack, that should allow plenty of time for the attack to rediscover their old form.
Sep. 13 vs. New England Revolution (9-12-5, 8th in Eastern Conference)
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize the crux of the Revs’ struggles this season. The five-time MLS Cup runners-up are yet to win away from Gillette Stadium. If you’ve been frustrated with Atlanta’s away performances, realize things could get much worse - New England are 0-10-3 on the road this year.
Due to their struggles away from home, expect the Revolution to employ a defensive style of play that sees them keep bodies behind the ball at all times. This “park the bus” mentality has given Atlanta some problems this season, especially of late. The attack languished against such defensive tactics recently at D.C. United and Philadelphia, meaning improved performances are a must for the likes of Josef Martinez, Miguel Almirón, Yamil Asad, and Tito Villalba. Still, considering the Revs’ abysmal play away from home, anything but a win from this match will surely be seen as points dropped.
Sep. 16 vs. Orlando City SC (lol)
It’s hard to discuss our southern neighbors without a good trolling. So before we go any further, let us take a minute to laugh at the team that wears purple and still haven’t figured out how to properly water their home pitch. Oh yeah, and did we mention that after a solid start to the season, our friends to the south have won just twice over their last 21 matches? Oh, and Dom Dwyer is yet to find the back of the net after OCSC broke the bank to acquire him from Sportking KC. And to top it all off, it’s freaking Orlando - a city where there are more hotels than natives. Okay, that was fun.
As for the match itself, expect an electric atmosphere, as AUFC will open the entirety of MBS for the match, meaning a likely record evening for MLS attendance.
United dominated OCSC at Bobby Dodd last month. But poor finishing, bad luck, and an absolute screamer from Kaka resulted in a 1-1 draw. They’ll be looking for a similar performance this time around, but will need to be more clinical against a side that will likely sit back as they did in the previous two matchups, and try to limit Atlanta’s opportunities.
The key battle may very well be against left wing Kaka, who is enjoying a decent run of form and fitness for the first time in some while. He gave right fullback Anton Walkes and winger Julian Gressel fits in the side’s previous two matches, successfully cutting inside and asking questions of the Atlanta defense. Martino wanted his team to make ac concerted effort to force Kaka back and defend in those games, but Gressel and Walkes weren’t able to control that side of the pitch offensively. With first-choice right wing Villalba likely starting in Gressel’s spot this time around, Atlanta will hope for different results on that side of the pitch.
Sep. 20 vs. LA Galaxy (7-14-5, 9th in Western Conference)
The Galaxy have taken a clear step backwards this season on the pitch, as they look to rebuild following the conclusion of the Bruce Arena era. And things have hit rock bottom of late, with LAG going winning just one of their last 11 matches, paving the way for perhaps their worst season in some time.
Although the Galaxy may be hitting the reset button, there is still some fine individual talent. Unfortunately, much of that talent has underachieved this season - Super signing Romain Allessandrini has hit the skids after a fine start to the year, and Giovanni Dos Santos continues to underwhelm and struggle for consistency in a league he was expected to dominate.
Sep. 24 vs. Montreal Impact (10-10-6, 7th in Western Conference)
Should Atlanta still be around the red line at this point, this match could be decisive with regards to a postseason birth. The Impact beat United north of the border earlier in the season, although a controversial 45th minute red card to Gonzalez Pirez (which was later rescinded) that lead to an equalizer from the spot turned the game on it’s head.
As wide playmaker Nacho Piatti goes, so go the Impact. The dynamic attacking winger has already scored 15 goals this season, is a nightmare in 1-on-1 situations, and has the finishing touch to help his individual ability pay off in front of goal.
Holding off Piatti from his wide left position poses a challenge. But this match may well be won in the center of the pitch. Seen as a potential weakness earlier in the year, the Impact have revamped their center midfield, acquiring Blerim Dzemaili (6 goals, 8 assists) on loan from Bologna in July to play the No. 10 role. Meanwhile, they plucked 22-year old Samuel Piette from Spain to play a deeper midfield role, adding balance through the middle, and his arrival sparked a four match win streak before losses to Chicago and conference leaders Toronto.
Sep. 27 vs. Philadelphia Union (8-12-7, 8th in Eastern Conference)
The Union have won just once away from Talen Energy Stadium. And Jim Curtain’s side could slide completely out of the postseason race by the time they set foot in the ATL. Much like the New England and Orlando matches, expect the Five Stripes to enter this match as heavy favorites.
Watch for Josef Martinez up against the center back tandem of Jack Elliot and Oguchi Onyewu. We’ve seen Onyewu struggle with pacey strikers in the past, and Martinez could run rampant if Atlanta provides good service.
Atlanta fans are pumped up to open Mercedez Benz Stadium for the first time. And their first visits to the stadium will also come during a critical point in United’s season, where the team’s fortunes will likely be decided.
Despite some less-than-impressive performances over their past few matches, United have always played well at home, and now they embark on six home matches over a two week period. And not only will they be able to enjoy all of the advantages that come with playing at home. But all six home matches also come against sides that have struggled on the road, and all but one of them currently sit outside of the playoffs in the table.
Clearly, AUFC have a chance to re-discover their good form this month, and open up The Benz in style. If they do so, Atlanta United fans can start seriously thinking about playoff soccer in Atlanta.