If a winless month of June seemed bad, July is doing its best to eclipse its predecessor as a public enemy in the eyes of Atlanta United. First came “knocks” to Santiago Sosa and Alan Franco, which added to an already dire fitness crisis. Then came a 3-0 loss to the Chicago Fire, which had been rooted in last place coming into the weekend. Now the Five Stripes will be without Brad Guzan, George Bello, Miles Robinson, and Ezequiel Barco for the coming weeks. International call-ups give the quartet an escape route from Atlanta but it leaves the Five Stripes without half of its starting XI, not to mention the continuing injury crisis. Gabriel Heinze’s side gets a welcomed week off to recover its boatload of injured players but first, it has to navigate a visit to Nashville SC.
The Tennessee outfit was always going to struggle to find a fitting sequel to its Cinderella 2020 run to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but so far the 2021 campaign has been far from a disappointment. Nashville is 4th in the East and has only one loss to its name. Once again defending has been Nashville’s strong suit with eleven goals conceded (4th best) in as many games and five clean sheets (2nd most). Gary Smith’s customary 4-4-2 is anchored by Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney in the backline, while Dax McCarty and Anibal Godoy hold down the midfield. Atlanta’s spine of Robinson and Sosa is usually up to the task but with those two out, the Five Stripes risk getting brushed to the side in the center of the pitch.
Nashville is known for its defense but its attack has quietly stepped up to the next level this season. Its’ expected goals of 19.2xg is good enough for second-most in the East, though thanks to wayward finishing its actual tally is only 14. When Nashville does score, it’s by committee. Hany Mukhtar is the current top scorer with 3 goals and one assist, while Randall Leal leads the assist charts with three helpers and two goals of his own. Gary Smith has rotated his starting striker role between CJ Sapong and Jhonder Cadiz, both of whom boast two goals and one assist. Sapong netted the winner last weekend in a 1-0 win over Philadelphia and is the favorite to get the nod Thursday. Nashville doesn’t have the firepower the best teams in MLS boast but it's far from helpless in the final third. While Nashville has scored more than one goal twice in the last six games, it also has been shut out just once. One goal is all it might take for Nashville to take all three points Thursday so Atlanta’s makeshift backline will need to be on its best behavior.
Predicted Starting XIs
As of writing, there’s no word yet on whether Josef Martinez, Alan Franco, or Santiago Sosa will be match-fit by kickoff. It doesn’t seem likely they would be rushed back into action, however, and Josef is the only one that seems possible to start. Even if he is available, this will be an almost entirely different starting XI than Heinze’s first-choice team. Alec Kann, Mikey Ambrose, and George Campbell are the favorites to replace Atlanta’s Gold Cup-bound contingent of defenders. Mo Adams and Tyler Wolff are keeping their midfield roles from the Chicago game, though Moreno will provide the attacking tip of the triangle instead of Barco. The attack is the only unchanged part with Jake Mulraney and Erik Lopez flanking either Cubo Torres or Josef.
Prediction: Nashville SC 1-1 Atlanta United
The odds seem stacked insurmountably against Atlanta, so obviously a win for the Five Stripes is on the cards. Well, maybe not. Even the MLS gods won’t be able to give a third (fourth?) string Atlanta three points. But a draw is possible with a substantial helping of luck and a moment of magic from Josef.
Anyways, the transfer window opens today.