Atlanta United’s progress under Gabriel Heinze has by no means been a linear movement. The early experiences of 2021 have ranged from the best soccer the Five Stripes have played since 2019 to long and dreary spells of empty possession. But the midway point of May has rolled into view and Atlanta is no longer dealing with CCL-induced schedule congestion, nor is Heinze’s style brand-new. The Five Stripes need to start picking up results with four games already under its belt and a visit from first-place CF Montreal is the perfect opportunity to put early-season worries to rest.
Montreal’s haul of eight points through five games is enough for first in the Eastern Conference along with the New England Revolution. A 2W-2T-1L record to start the season is miles better than most preseason predictions. Last season’s head coach, Thierry Henry, resigned only weeks prior to opening day with Wilfried Nancy getting promoted from assistant manager. After a 9th place finish in 2020, there was little hope things would turn around in 2021 without Henry.
So far, however, the early signs under Nancy’s leadership are positive. Montreal has lined up in a 3-4-1-2 so far, which has the Canadian side second in goals scored in the East with 8 (all but one from open play). Strikers Bjorn Johnsen and Mason Toye have two goals each and are supported by proven MLS attackers Romell Quioto (1g, 2a) and Đorđe Mihailović (1g, 1a). If the latter is fit (he exited injured in a midweek clash against Miami), Atlanta’s defense will have its hands full keeping track of Montreal’s attacking combinations. While Mihailović would be a big loss if unavailable, Nancy has plenty of other options at his disposal. The defensive side of Montreal’s game, however, is more suspect. It has conceded two goals in three of its five outings and the fourth-worst expected goals against in the East. Atlanta’s frontline has been toothless throughout the first month of the season but with Josef Martinez back on the scoresheet, the Five Stripes have a chance to find its final third footing Saturday.
Predicted Starting XIs
Both Ezequiel Barco and Jurgen Damm are still not featuring in training according to reports, so Jake Mulraney and Erik Lopez remain the only fit wingers. Marcelino Moreno could retain his midfield role from last weekend and partner Santiago Sosa and Emerson Hyndman in the center of the pitch. As for the backline, Designated Player Alan Franco is yet to receive a starting nod since the defeat to New England. After a full week of training, perhaps he’s become more acclimated to Heinze’s system and could replace Walkes.
Prediction: Atlanta United 2-1 CF Montreal
While Atlanta doesn’t have much of an edge over Montreal on paper, the visitors had a Wednesday visit to Inter Miami whereas Atlanta had the full week to prepare. Goals from Josef and Erik Lopez will be enough for the Five Stripes to take all three points.