Atlanta United crashed down to earth (and in the standings) with last weekend’s 2-0 loss at the hands of the LA Galaxy. The good vibes generated from picking up four points in home games against Orlando and Real Salt Lake disappeared as quickly as they coalesced and Gonzalo Pineda’s side is back to staring its unhappy reality in the face. However, things could get even worse with a trip to the Chicago Fire and a must-not-lose in the playoff chase looming this Saturday.
Atlanta picked the perfect time to play the Fire; Chicago is on a three-game winning streak after going 2W-3T-10L in its 15 matches prior. Chicago is finally getting the results its performances had been hinting at and is priming up for a playoff push at the perfect time, now up to 9th on 26 points. Ezra Henrickson’s side still has a lot of work to do if the postseason is a real possibility, especially in attack where it has the second-worst tally in the East with 24 goals. That might be changing, however, as Chicago has scored multiple goals in 3 of its last 4 outings. Xherdan Shaqiri (4g, 4a) has been the main dangerman and put in his best performance of the season in last week’s 3-1 win at Vancouver, headlined by a goal and assist from the 30-year-old. Chicago is yet to find a suitable supporting cast for Shaqiri, with center-back Rafa Czichos second in its goalscoring charts with 3 goals. Chris Mueller and Jhon Duran (3g, 3a each) have started to make an impact of late and could be the missing pieces to the Fire’s attack.
A combination of results around the league means Atlanta tumbled to 12th in the East last week, a season-low in the standings. Still, the Five Stripes are just four points below the red line, so all hope isn’t lost (yet). But first, it’s going to take putting some wins on the board if Atlanta is going to take advantage of the massive clump that is the Eastern Conference. With visits to Chicago and Cincinnati and a home game against Seattle on the way, the Five Stripes will have to improve in leaps and bounds to avoid another losing run, let alone a streak up the standings. Atlanta’s awful away form under Pineda adds yet another wrinkle to its already slim postseason chances, and over half of its remaining 13 games come on the road.
Predicted Starting XIs
The most interesting part of this game could very well come before it has even kicked off. Pineda has benched Thiago Almada for three games running for tactical reasons (whatever those may be), but it's clear he’s Atlanta’s best player. Will Pineda realize his mistake and reinstate the Argentine or stubbornly double down? The same goes for Josef Martinez, who’s also been condemned to the substitutes list of late.
McBlunder’s Prediction: Chicago Fire 2-2 Atlanta United
Atlanta will manage to cool the Fire’s winning streak thanks to strikes from Luiz Araujo and Ronaldo Cisneros, but another leaky performance defensively will make a win one step too far.