Coaching changes are usually made with the goal of an immediate change of results in mind. But as Gonzalo Pineda prepares to take the reigns from Rob Valentino, the hope will be that Atlanta United’s current form carries on under the Five Stripes’ third manager of the season. Atlanta has won four straight under Valentino, shooting up the Eastern Conference standings from Wooden Spoon contender to five points out of third place. Pineda doesn’t have an easy task in front of him of matching his predecessor's accomplishments. With continued injury woes and international absences looming, September has the makings of a rough month. But for now, the focus is on starting Pineda’s tenure off on the right foot with a home win. The Five Stripes host Nashville SC Saturday and could finish August above the red line for the first time in months before a two-week break.
Nashville, however, won’t lay down the welcoming mat for Pineda. The Tennesse side has lost just twice all season and is fourth in the Eastern Conference, level on 32 points with Philadelphia. It has the third most goals scored (32) and second-fewest conceded (20) in the East. Though Nashville was known for its defense last season, its attack has taken several steps forward in 2021. CJ Sapong leads the team with 9 goals and 3 assists but it’s Hany Mukhtar that's the heartbeat in the final third. After a disappointing debut season, the German has 8 goals and 7 assists this year. Mukhtar has caused Atlanta problems all season, scoring a quickfire brace to snatch a 2-2 draw out of the jaws of defeat in May and slotting home a penalty against Alec Kann in July. Randall Leal (3g, 4a) and Daniel Lovitz (3a) are Gary Smith’s other main attacking outlets, though Nashville’s two big-name strikers have yet to make a real impact. Designated Player forward Jhonder Cadiz has two goals to his name this season and fell behind Sapong in the depth chart. Summer signing Ake Loba, also a DP, is yet to break into the starting XI either and has notched just 131 minutes of action in seven appearances.
Sapong and Mukhtar’s red-hot form has compensated for less-than-ideal impacts from the rest of the attacking corps but cracks are starting to show in Nashville’s armor. It has just one win in its last five and is one of the three teams in MLS that are yet to win on the road (0W-5T-2L). Even worse from a Nashville perspective is its upcoming schedule. Nashville has played 13 home games so far compared to just 7 on the road, though that’s soon to change with 5 of its next 6 coming away. Nashville is about to find out over the coming weeks whether it really is one of the top teams in the East or if a playoff spot is its ceiling.
Predicted Starting XIs
Prediction: Atlanta United 2-2 Nashville SC
Though Nashville is limping, Atlanta won’t be able to extend its winning streak in Pineda’s debut. Goals from Sapong and Leal will cancel out a Josef brace in another entertaining draw between the two Southern foes.