The first three games of Gabriel Heinze’s tenure have been nothing short of a success. Atlanta won both legs of its Round of 16 tie against Alajuelense before taking a point back home from Orlando. The Five Stripes’ defense has been its stronghold and Brad Guzan/Rocco Ríos Novo’s net is still unscathed. The attack, however, has been underwhelming. Atlanta has scored just two goals (one a penalty and the other thanks to Alajuelense throwing numbers forward late in the game) and chances have been hard to come by. But Chicago Fire’s visit to Mercedes-Benz Stadium could be an opportunity for the attacking corps to find their footing.
Chicago opened its 2021 season with a 2-2 draw with the New England Revolution, despite going up 2-0 within 14 minutes. DP striker Robert Beric has already opened his account after leading the 2020 goalscoring charts with 12 tallies in 23 games and is the main threat from the Windy City. The Slovenian included, seven of Chicago’s starters (plus manager Raphael Wicky) against the Revs were signed ahead of the 2020 campaign. The Fire made only four signings in 2021, all 22 or under and signed with the future rather than the present in mind.
It’s not a huge surprise that the Fire opted for continuity in 2021. Despite an 11th-place finish last season, on its day Chicago could play stylish soccer and with some better finishing (it led the Eastern Conference in expected goals last season and was 6th in xg difference) a playoff spot would have been well in its grasp. Perhaps more concerning for Chicago was its defense; the 39 goals it conceded were the 3rd-worst in the East. The Fire wasn’t able to bolster its defensive ranks over the offseason and after blowing a two-goal lead to New England, it appears the same issues could plague Wicky and Company once again. Giving Wicky another season to implement his ideas with the same players while quite a few other Eastern teams go through major makeovers could give the Fire an advantage in the hunt for a playoff spot.
Predicted Starting XIs
While picking up a positive result in the home opener is surely of importance to Heinze, he could have an eye on Tuesday’s CCL quarter-final clash with the Philadelphia Union. With the week of rest coming into Saturday, it’s unlikely he rotates heavily but there could be a few changes to the lineup as Heinze figures out his first-choice eleven.
Prediction: Atlanta United 3-1 Chicago Fire
While Chicago will manage to break Atlanta’s shutout streak, the Five Stripes should still take all three points against a porous Fire backline. Goals from Lisandro Lopez and Ezequiel Barco will propel Atlanta to its first MLS win of the Heinze era after a back-and-forth ninety minutes.