Ninety-eight days after Atlanta United’s playoff exit at the hands of eventual champions NYCFC, our beloved Five Stripes are back to delight/terrorize us. Atlanta’s sixth season begins with a Sunday afternoon home tilt against Sporting Kansas City, a team we haven’t seen in three seasons. Keeping the core of last season mostly intact plus the addition of a few depth pieces and Thiago Almada should have Atlanta set up for a successful 2022 but will this be the year the Five Stripes finally deliver on their vast potential?
Gonzalo Pineda’s debut half-campaign ended with a wimper when New York City but the Mexican laid a solid foundation in his 14 games in charge, boasting a 7W-3D-4L record. His points per game of 1.71 would have been good enough for 58 points across an entire season and the second seed in the East. He’ll have to make do without a trio of starters from last year, with Geore Bello, Anton Walkes, and Ezequiel Barco all out the door. In came Andrew Gutman, Ozzie Alonso, Thiago Almada, and Dom Dwyer, so Atlanta has no shortage of options to call upon. The deciding factor, however, will likely be Pineda’s skill as a coach. Now that he’s had a full offseason with the squad the Five Stripes will hopefully show a bit more teamwide system and style than relying on star players like last season. That worked against weaker teams in MLS but Atlanta’s one win against a playoff team is all the evidence you need to see something more complex is needed this time around. A home opener against last season’s third seed in the West is as good opportunity as any for Pineda and Co to show this side has turned a corner.
Quite unlike Atlanta, Kansas has been the model of consistency and is currently on year 14 with head coach Peter Vermes. He favors a tried and true 4-3-3 week in week out, with the majority of the goalscoring burden falling on the wingers, Daniel Salloi and Johnny Russell. The duo combined for 32 goals and 15 assists last year, but Kansas’ attack will be seriously hampered by the season-ending injury of DP Alan Pulido. SKC brought in Nikola Vujnovic to fill the hole but it could be a while before the Montenegro international is ready to make a real impact. Until then, Khiry Shelton will be the go to man up front. Shelton has just 9 goals in 79 all time appearances for SKC, so goals might be at a premium for Vermes’ side. Another area of concern is the midfield, which lost Gianluca Busio and Illie Sanchez last season. The jury is still out on summer signing Jose Mauri and Uri Rosell is average at best. Atlanta might not be at its best either in the center of the park thanks to Santiago Sosa’s visa issues, but a trio of Alonso-Rossetto-Moreno should take charge against Kansas.
Atlanta has evenly split its three all-time meetings against Kansas, with one win, draw, and loss each. The last time these two teams met was a 3-0 road win for Atlanta back in May 2019, headlined by a Josef brace. It’s been a while.
Predicted Starting XIs
Prediction: Atlanta United 2-1 Sporting KC
Josef Martinez and Luiz Araujo will grab the goals in an entertaining back-and-forth opening day victory for Atlanta, though Johnny Russell will dampen the parade slightly with a late consolation goal.