The Five Stripes have made a solid start to life under their new head coach so far, beating Costa Rican giants Alajuelense across two legs in the CONCACAF Champions League while also taking a point away from home at Orlando City, keeping three clean sheets in the process.
But this weekend will pose yet another test of Atlanta’s credentials. For all their defensive misgivings, the Fire are a truly breathtaking attacking unit and play some of the most attractive soccer in MLS right now.
Keeping them at bay will be no easy task, but which players do Atlanta United need to pay closest attention to?
Might as well start with the most obvious.
After scoring 12 goals in 23 appearances last season, Robert Beric has been widely tipped as one of the frontrunners for this season’s Golden Boot race and he proved again why that is the case with a goal and assist within 11 minutes against the New England Revolution on opening weekend.
That alone should be enough to make any opposition supporter stand up and take notice, but Beric is more than just a fox in the box.
#MLS Week 1 Thread: Is one week too early to draw season long conclusions? Probably. Regardless, here is [Shot Creating Actions vs npxG+xA]. #NashvilleSC's left side was largely responsible for creating their 31 shots. And Gil, Ruidiaz, and Beric picked up where they left off. pic.twitter.com/FRrxm6avGD— Mike Vermeland (@ikicknumbers) April 22, 2021
As his Smarterscout actions map from the 2020 season shows below, the Slovenia international is both capable and comfortable receiving possession between the lines, combining with his teammates in tight spaces and pulling opposition center-backs out of position.
Beric is also powerful in the air and a willing presser, meaning Miles Robinson and Co. are guaranteed to have their hands full.
What’s more, his open-play goal map below shows that Beric can pretty much find the net from any angle in the box, both with his head and his feet. Limiting his touches in dangerous areas and pushing him away from the 18-yard-box will be key.
If Beric is allowed to run riot, and considering the Fire’s poor defensive record, there’s every chance this game turns into a drunken bar fight. At this point, with Josef Martinez still coming back to fitness and Heinze working out the squad at his disposal, the Five Stripes just aren’t ready for that kind of match-up.
Of course, the task of keeping someone like Beric locked up is made that much more difficult when you have someone like Alvaro Medran pulling the strings.
The Spanish midfielder joined the Fire from Valencia on a TAM deal at the start of last season — a great piece of business from the club — and finished the year with a team-high six assists and 36 chances created in 23 appearances.
Medran is an incredibly talented passer of the ball, able to thread the ball through the eye of a needle for the penetrating runs of Beric, recycle possession in tight spaces and open the game up with accurate diagonals.
The 27-year-old was rated at 98/99 for his passing toward the opposition goal by Smarterscout last season, while he came in at 96 for his overall attacking output. Heinze will need an energetic, aggressive midfielder like Franco Ibarra or Emerson Hyndman to step onto Medran and deny him space and time to pick his passes.
On the flip side, the Five Stripes will have to be on their guard in possession, too, with Medran unflinching in his defensive duties. The calm composure of Sosa may play a key role in allowing Atlanta to build through pressure with Medran likely to occupy the same space on the pitch.
Playing a little further back than Medran, Gaston Gimenez is by no means less talented or important to the Fire.
The Paraguay international made more tackles (30) than any other Chicago player during the 2020 season, while he finished second only to Francisco Calvo (77) for interceptions (44).
But don’t let that fool you into thinking Gimenez is a mere destroyer. The 29-year-old is just as talented as Medran with the ball at his feet and is a powerful runner in possession.
Most important, though, is the fact he’s so familiar with Heinze having played under the Argentine for nearly two years at Velez Sarsfield, making 49 appearances. In fact, so important was Gimenez to his coach that Heinze fought as hard as he could to keep him at Velez when news of the Fire’s interest came about.
“Maybe the fact of having spent so much time with him makes it so that I know how he plays and he also knows how I play,” Giménez said of the prospect of meeting his old boss. “And that makes the game — I’m not really sure how to say it, but maybe different for me. But it’s not more than that. He has gone his own way and I’ve come my own way, and hopefully, when we meet up, we’ll be able to do things right and come away from that game with the three points.”
Fire head coach Raphael Wicky also confirmed he has consulted Gimenez about Heinze’s style of play.
“We’ve talked a little bit but we also have a coaching staff, we have an analysis department and we watch the games and we know what to expect,” the Swiss tactician said. “But yes, I have spoken with him a little bit about certain things but there is nothing different he told me than what we saw.”
Gimenez is keenly aware of Heinze’s press and possess style and likely knows the sort of patterns the Argentine coach likes his side to play out when counter-attacking. This makes him the prime candidate to shut down the likes of Ezequiel Barco and Marcelino Moreno as they try and drive forward in transition. Winning that battle could be key in winning the war on Saturday.