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Prekrap: Atlanta United at Chicago Fire

Rumble in the... uh, suburbs

MLS: Montreal Impact at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United finally looks like they’ve found the key pieces that were missing last year - players that can help break teams down. Between Ezequiel Barco and Darlington Nagbe, the Five Stripes are getting more accurate passing in the final third and the team’s depth has them riding a seven game unbeaten streak. The team will face another test this weekend as they travel to the Windy Suburb looking to avenge a 2-0 loss in Bridgeview last year.

Last year Atlanta played an ugly game in Chicago and I’m not talking about the shorts on the away kits - it was really quite the poor showing as Matt Doyle pointed out:

That doesn’t quite tell the whole story, Atlanta didn’t have their best 11 with Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez coming back from international duty, but their 30 or so minutes on the field didn’t help United make a comeback in the game. While the Fire had an effective strategy last year, this is not the same Chicago Fire and Atlanta United has made some key improvements as well.

Onto the Prekrap...

Make Fire pun here

So far the Chicago Fire have not quite built on their surprising 2017 campaign. Last season the team seemed ready to threaten for the Supporters’ Shield through mid-summer, but the Fire faded badly down the stretch. The New York Red Bulls plunged the final horn into their doomed season by dispatching them easily 4-0 in the playoffs. Rather than add a missing piece here or there, the Fire decided to totally rebuild. They said goodbye to their second best player, David Accam, welcoming allocation money in return, after a spat with manager Veljko Paunovic about playing in the All Star game soured their relationship (yes, really). In addition, they parted with central midfielder Juninho, attacker Arturo Alvarez, and center back Joao Meira. All of those players had over 1,000 minutes with the team last year and were largely replaced by role players, draft picks, and homegrown signees.

The results have been inconsistent and not that promising. The team began the year with a 4-3 loss to Sporting Kansas City and a 2-2 draw against Portland both at home. In their recent results, the Chicago Fire have been more lucky than good. The team has struggled to figure out its best lineup and the difficulty they have had integrating their new pieces see the Fire sitting in 7th place with eight points on a 2-2-3 record. Quite frankly, the talent is also missing in what is a very young and inexperienced team.

Still, their results over the last two weeks are something the team can build on. Chicago got thoroughly outplayed by the New York Red Bulls in Harrison two weeks ago needing a penalty and absolute golazo to beat the hosts. New York was absolutely buzzing around the Fire 18 yard box the whole game and a standout performance from Richard Sanchez in goal along with a great effort by the post helped the Fire seal the win. Then last week Chicago went to Toronto and fell behind 2-0. The injured Reds, coming off of their mid week loss in Guadalajara, failed to hold the lead and a last second free-kick fell to the feet of Alan Gordon who poked the ball past Alex Bono to get the draw for the Fire. Neither performance was good, the Fire didn’t do anything particularly well in the game and got the results they did thanks to luck and persistence.

As far as what Atlanta can expect out of Chicago, the Fire have been playing a 5-3-2 formation. They have not really tried to build possession this year, rather relying on playing Schweinsteiger as a false center back as the team wins the ball back and he looks to play directly to Nemanja Nikolic, Aleksandar Katai, and whoever else happens to be standing nearby them. Overwhelmingly, the team relies on those three in attack as they have eight of the 11 goals for the Fire on the year. With the Fire so reliant on three players for their attack, Atlanta should have a clear idea of who to key on when their opponents have the ball.

I SAID THE RETURN OF THE 4-3-3

Let’s try this again...

Atlanta United is finally fully healthy and the team can start to do some more things on the field that should be a step forward from last year and fully integrate their new pieces in 2018. But will they? As mentioned above, Chicago has been more lucky than good as of late and the key to their comeback in Toronto was the play of Schweinsteiger. The styles of the two teams also show the weakness of Chicago and how to exploit it. Frankly, the team doesn’t have players good enough to pass through a press and if enough force is exerted on Schweinsteiger, he struggles to keep Chicago in the game.

Compare his heatmap in the New York game where the World Cup champ had just 66 touches, his team managed just four shots, and only held 37% of the possession here...

...to what he managed against TFC, who gave Chicago half the possession, allowing Schweni to venture forward from his sweeper position, have 99 touches and let the team find space to get 17 shots off against the MLS Cup winners.

Statistically, Chicago had no business beating New York and the forces of randomness prevailed on the day. If Atlanta pushes Chicago back and limits their ability to give Schweinsteiger time on the ball, the Five Stripes could get a favorable result in the game. In addition, if they can press like New York did, the trick Chicago pulled last year with Atlanta starting a ‘B’ lineup should be less effective this time.

Atlanta will need to find a way to turn what should be a lot of possession into successful chances on goal. Whether that means returning to a 4-3-3 and opting for a more attacking lineup with Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, and Tito Villalba lining up as forwards or sticking with a 3-5-2 with a third center back set to defend the two Chicago strikers and trying to press more in midfield is a question Tata Martino will have to answer along with what to do with Julian Gressel, Kevin Kratz, and Franco Escobar. All of these decisions along with the adjustments that he makes come with strengths and weaknesses with Tata’s choices ultimately determining if Atlanta United rides their unbeaten streak to eight games.

Whatever lineup and personnel choices Tata makes, do not expect this to be a pretty game. It is doubtful that Chicago will even attempt anything resembling playing Atlanta in an open game. They just don’t have the pieces to do it and it would be to the benefit to do as Montreal did for 69 minutes last weekend and be organized and cohesive defensively while forcing Atlanta to break them down. As has been stressed before, teams that bunkered against the Five Stripes last year had some success - think Vancouver, DC United, Sporting Kansas City. With Barco, Almiron, and Darlington Nagbe having another week of training together, the game should test if Atlanta can truly overcome those tactics.

Playing the role of Eliot Ness and ruining everyone’s party...