Atlanta United’s week-long road trip went about as poorly as you would have expected results-wise, but the performances in New Jersey and New York did leave some room for optimism. The Five Stripes played their best soccer in recent weeks and should have had at least one point from the Red Bulls to go with the respectable draw at NYCFC. Defensive mistakes (who would have guessed?) unfortunately threw any hopes of a very rare road victory out the window, but reinforcements are on the way just in time for a three-game homestand starting this Saturday with Austin FC.
The Texas side has been one of the surprises of the season, currently sitting second in the Western Conference on 34 points. Austin has improved more than anyone expected in its second year in the league after finishing 12th out of 13 in its expansion season. The key theme of the offseason was continuity, all the way from the front office and head coach Josh Wolff (father of Tyler) to the roster. Whereas Austin was a Jekyll and Hyde team in the final third and subpar defensively in 2021, it now has one of the best attacks in the league and fewer worries at the back. Austin is tied with LAFC (the only team above it in the Supporter’s Shield standings) for the league lead in goals scored (35), though it lurks midtable in goals conceded (22). Argentine DP Sebastian Driussi has been the key force behind Austin’s goalscoring havoc, leading MLS MVP discussions with 10 goals and 3 assists. MLS veterans Diego Fagundez (3g, 7a) and Maximiliano Urruti (6g) form a fearsome supporting cast and give Austin a handful of different paths to goal.
Austin’s superb season does come with a bit of a caveat, however. Its campaign can be split up into two parts, the easy half (games 1-9) and the rougher stretch (10-present). In those first 9 games, Austin notched 6 wins, a goal differential of +14, and just one defeat. Since then Austin has 4 wins, a goal differential of -1, and three losses. While that’s still a very respectable run of form, Austin’s ceiling is showing. That ceiling seems much higher away from home, where it has 2 draws and a loss in its last three. In turn, however, Austin has won three road games in a row against Montreal, Charlotte, and Colorado, not to mention the three points it picked up at LAFC in May. Just, you know, something to keep an eye out for Saturday.
While Atlanta United left the Northeast with a fair bit of pride intact, Gonzalo Pineda’s side couldn’t change an increasingly concerning trend ever since the Mexican took over last year. After winning once against a team that qualified for the playoffs in 14 games in 2021, Atlanta has moved on to bigger and better things with a grand total of zero wins against teams currently above the red line this season. And wouldn’t you know, the Five Stripes have 4 straight and 7 of the next 8 outings against playoff teams. Five of those are at home and considering the good guys are five points and four teams out of the playoffs, picking up full points at the Benz week-in, week-out is vital. Atlanta hasn’t shown that it’s capable of doing so yet, but now sure would be a great time to get started tallying up wins.
Predicted Starting XIs
Prediction: Atlanta United 3-2 Austin FC
Atlanta United’s first-ever meeting against Austin will end with the good guys happy thanks to some stellar goals from Thiago Almada and Luiz Araujo, though Driussi will wreak havoc on the other end as the Mexican reinforcements find their footing in MLS.