After holding one of the three remaining unbeaten teams in MLS to a draw last week, Atlanta has the chance to go one better when it hosts Nashville. The Southern match-up is the last game before a three-week international break and what better way to end the month than with three points?
Nashville, however, promises to be a stern test for Gabriel Heinze’s side. It’s building off an impressive expansion campaign where the Music City finished 7th and made a run to the Eastern Conference semifinals. Nashville is yet to lose through six rounds this season, though it has twice as many draws (4) as wins (2). The Tennessean side is once again one of the best defensive teams in the league, coming into Saturday’s affair off the back of four straight clean sheets. Only New York City FC (3.7 xga) has a better expected goals against than Nashville (5 xga). Gary Smith’s side has conceded a league-low ten shots on target including just one in the last two games. After a shaky start to the season with four goals conceded in the first two games, Nashville has now firmly found its defensive footing. It’s going to take nothing less than a moment of magic for Atlanta to test Joe Willis’ goal, let alone score.
Nashville’s biggest shortcoming in 2020 was its ailing attack, scoring a mere 24 goals in 23 games. This season, however, has seen it take several steps in the right direction. Nashville is seventh in MLS in expected goals with 10.7xg, has the second-most shots, and the second-highest shots on target percentage. Last summer’s big signing Jhonder Cadiz is finally starting to click and has two goals and one assist this season as the focal point of Nashville’s attack. Randall Leal has also caused havoc from left wing with two goals and two assists. Much of Nashville’s attack comes down the left flank and left-back Daniel Lovitz has 1.8 expected assists, averages 3.89 shots created per game, and the most successful dribbles (10). Lovitz also leads Nashville in touches, including the second-most in the final third. Only Leal has more touches and shots created. Atlanta’s right flank will be put to the test to say the least.
As for the Five Stripes, it did admirably to hold current Supporters Shield leaders Seattle to a draw last week. Though it couldn’t break down the Sounders backline, Atlanta completely neutralized the league’s best attack for eighty-four minutes. It may take time, but Atlanta is clearly taking significant steps of growth under Heinze. Perhaps on paper, the results look similar from early April but the Five Stripes backline and midfield are soon becoming some of the best in MLS. A home win to close out the first part of the season and keep Atlanta within touching distance of the top of the East would be an excellent curtain-closer of May.
Predicted Starting XIs
The big news is that Ezequiel Barco and Alan Franco will be available, though its uncertain whether either can start. The centerback duo of Robinson and Walkes doesn’t look like it will be broken up anytime soon, however, so Franco may have to wait no matter what. Barco would be a welcome addition back into the XI and his ability to shift play from the midfield into the final third has been sorely missed. Should the Argentine not be 100%, Atlanta will need all of the attacking players it has available to break down Nashville. Franco Ibarra could be moved to the bench in favor of Moreno in midfield, while Mulraney and Lopez are the only other options on the wing.
As for Nashville, its switched between a 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 in recent games. The former would give Cadiz a parter up top against Atlanta’s fearsome backline along with solidifying the flanks, though truth be told, there’s little threat down the sidelines from the Five Stripes. Most important will be the midfield matchup of McCarty-Godoy against Santiago Sosa and Emerson Hyndman. Chances will be at a premium Saturday, but it stands to reason whoever controls the center of the pitch will see the better looks at goal.
Prediction: Atlanta United 1-0 Nashville SC
It would fitting if two teams that have combined for eleven goals scored and conceded in their last four games played host to a wild, highscoring affair. It’s far from likely, however. Instead, a late Josef Martinez winner will give Atlanta all three points after a close and quiet ninety minutes.