When Atlanta United returns to the field for league play this Saturday against Toronto FC, it will mark the start of the six-game stretch taking us to the end of the MLS regular season — and it’s truly all to play for.
Since this has seemingly been the longest international break of all time that has us all pulling our hair out, here’s a handy reference getting everybody back up to speed on where things stand.
If you’ve only been paying mild attention during the late summer and only have heard that things are turning around and this team could possibly have championship aspirations, you probably take a glance at this and think “what the hell?” That’s right, after losing two of their last three, Atlanta is indeed out of the playoff places. But this can turn around quickly for reasons we will explain.
The most interesting thing to not here is the point differential between 4th and 8th place. A 3 point win is the difference between being where Atlanta currently is (out of the playoffs) and where Orlando is (hosting a first round playoff game). It’s an extremely congested table that is going to make for some thrilling swings and a dramatic finale to the season.
Finally, we can get to the optimism, which is that Atlanta has as favorable of a six-game stretch as you could ever hope for. It’s the easiest such stretch in MLS. Notice that only two teams in this group of fixtures, NYCFC and New York Red Bulls, are even visible in the table posted above. That’s because Cincinnati and Toronto — two teams Atlanta has recently beaten — are bona fide train wrecks at this point, propping up the Eastern conference standings. And Atlanta basically ended Miami’s playoff hopes as well when they defeated them on September 29.
Ideally, you’d start this stretch coming off an international break with a home game. But if it’s not at home, it might as well be one of the worst teams in the league. And if for some reason Atlanta’s hopes lie on the result from the season finale, “lads, it’s Cincinnati.”
This is about as healthy as Atlanta United has been all year, which might not be saying a ton considering the way this team has been pummeled with injuries — some severe — perhaps due to some ill-advised training regimes early in the season *coughcough.
The bad news is that if there’s one player who is banged up and Atlanta needs to be careful with, it’s their star striker Josef Martinez. His surgically repaired knee is clearly causing him pain and issues, and that’s on top of a hamstring strain suffered in the team’s last match against Montreal 10 days ago. Martinez is technically listed as day-to-day and we’ll get a status update on him later this week. The good news is that given Atlanta’s schedule, they can probably make do without him for every single one of these upcoming games.
Then, of course there’s Atlanta’s two U.S. internationals Miles Robinson and George Bello, who’ve logged a ton of minutes this year on top of having the travel and play demands of international tournaments and World Cup qualifiers. Pineda said upon his arrival in Atlanta that he’d ideally like to keep consistency in his starting XI, but some rotation may continue to be necessary, especially if Atlanta can solidify their playoff position before the final few games.
With a full roster to work with, these are the two tactical shapes Pineda can choose from. Since he’s taken over, Atlanta United’s manager has mainly relied on the back 3 and that certainly seems to be the safest and most likely option. Due to some of the health issues and reasons for rotation explained above, the back four could present itself as the best choice. If, for example, Pineda chooses to rest Miles Robinson after the international break, the back four is the natural fit.
The biggest question around the back three is about whether Marcelino Moreno, one of Atlanta’s most important players so far this season, fits into that shape better than, say, Matheus Rossetto playing as a more natural midfield partner to Santiago Sosa. These are are the questions and scenarios Pineda will need to find solutions for over these coming weeks so that the team is optimized if/when it reaches the postseason.