Atlanta United can take one step closer to securing the Supporters’ Shield in its second season in existence on Sunday by beating the Chicago Fire. The game will be the first since the international break and will be a chance for the Five Stripes to avenge their loss to Chicago in the US Open Cup. That loss may sting, as Atlanta would have had a chance to be the first team to complete the American treble, the hard one, not the easy Canadian one. Alas, 2018 will not be the year that such an accomplishment is reached.
Chicago feels the Sting
As for their opponents, the Chicago Fire will look back at 2018 as yet another lost year in a string of lost years. Since 2009, Chicago has made the playoffs twice - the same number of times Atlanta United has made the playoffs in two years - and in both of those appearances they went out in the first round. Nothing worked this season for the Fire. The year began with David Accam being sent to Philadelphia after falling out with manager Veljko Paunovic because he didn’t start in the All-Star Game. It would turn out that sending a player to the Union wouldn’t solve everything wrong with Chicago as the team has amassed an 8-7-17 record with 31 points and 59 goals allowed.
I’ll be honest, I have not watched much of the Fire this year but I can still tell you what is wrong with this team: their central midfield does not work, their defense is terrible, new Designated Player Aleksander Katai did not replace Accam, they have a player whose hashtag on social media is #GrindSet, Bastian Schweinsteiger played center back for part of the year and sweeper as if it was 1974 for another part, the poaching goals for Nemanja Nikolic did not come, and their goal keeper did this:
Not even the ghost of Cuhotomoc Blanco could save this team or provide a decent path for building it back into its early promise as the once Greatest Expansion Team Of All Time. In short, the Fire looked like a team that was going to rely on a bunch of unproven Homegrown Players, Dax McCarty, and draft picks to be dragged through the season by its 2017 Golden Boot winning striker, formerly world class central midfielder, and shaky replacement for David Accam. Predictably none of it came together because that is a horrible way to build a team.
Then there’s Veljko Paunovic who tried everything in 2018: he played Schweinsteiger at sweeper, he played him at center back, he tried to let Alan Gordon win every game in the 89th minute, he let someone named Brandt Bronico play central midfield, and none of it worked and he still has a job.
The key thing to watch for from Chicago in this match will be if they have enough motivation to not embarrass themselves on national television, if they do they might only give up three goals.
Atlanta United: A team of contrasts
The Five Stripes meanwhile come into the game flying high after a 2-0 win against the New England Revolution. In many ways the game exemplified the Atlanta United season. They easily dispatched a mediocre team that looked tentative with the ball and unsure when Atlanta had possession. It was also a win that followed a bad loss to one of the best sides in MLS. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Atlanta still has only beaten one team in the top six of the overall table and they’re an expansion side.
In addition to the win, Atlanta may have also found something it has been lacking all year - a reliable left back. 16 year-old George Bello has undoubtedly emerged as the top choice at left back, or at least a player who can push Greg Garza for a starting spot when he returns from injury. Bello does seem to have an attribute that Garza lacks: finishing. Don’t get me wrong, Garza can get into dangerous spots as an attacking left back, but his shots usually end up somewhere tangled amongst the flags in the supporters section rather than in the back of the net. Sadly, Bello may or may not be with the team as he returned from youth national team duty mid-week.
And yet, there is still more uncertainty about Atlanta United. It seems that Tata Martino may be on his way to coaching the Mexican National Team. Clearly, the prospect of the USMNT being led by Gregg Berhalter has El Tri in need of hiring his nemesis, so blame Ernie Stewart and “The Process” as it were for this one. The drama in the coaching box doesn’t seem like it’s causing problems for the team, but as Tata’s future remains in doubt perhaps that may change. If Atlanta United can get past all that and focus on containing Alan Gordon, everything will be OK.