Atlanta United’s return from the international break is a marquee match-up for a boatload of reasons. None other than Inter Miami is waiting for the Five Stripes as MLS returns, with club legends Josef Martinez and Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino returning to Mercedes-Benz Stadium as the enemy for the first time ever. That storyline will be rivaled, however, by the possibility of a Lionel Messi appearance in the Peach State.
Atlanta has already faced Messi and Miami once, losing 4-0 in the Leagues Cup group stage with the Argentine bagging a brace in his first start. Messi is now at 11 goals and 5 assists in 11 games and Miami has gone on to win the entire Leagues Cup, taking down Philadelphia and Nashville en route to its first-ever trophy. Tata Martino’s side has kept that form alive back in MLS, winning three of four outings, including a 3-1 win at LAFC. But despite such a heavy dose of success to begin the Messi era, Miami remains an outside shot for the playoffs. It’s currently 14th in the Eastern Conference with 28 points, six out of the final postseason berth in 9th. With Messi on hand, however, anything is possible.
For as good as Messi is, the task of taking Miami from the worst team in MLS to a trophy contender hasn’t fallen on his shoulders alone. Fellow ex-Barcelona legends Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba joined him in Fort Lauderdale, alongside South American U-22 signings Tomas Avila (CB), Diego Gomez (CM), and Facundo Farias (W). The injection of youth has complemented the veteran presences of Busquets and Alba quite nicely, but internal improvements have played just as big a role in Miami’s turnaround. Winger Robert Taylor (6 goals, 7 assists), Josef Martinez (Miami’s non-Messi leading scorer with 10 tallies), and Benjamin Cremaschi (2g, 6a) have particularly benefited from the bright lights. Even if Messi isn’t available come Saturday, Miami has the weapons to cause Atlanta problems.
Speaking of the Five Stripes, Gonzalo Pineda’s side had an underwhelming conclusion to MLS play before the break, losing to FC Cincinnati and drawing Dallas thanks to some heroics from the DPs, a steep drop off compared to the wins over Nashville and Seattle. While part of those less-than-ideal results can be put down to the caliber of the opponent and the Texas heat, it does seem to give credibility to what the Eastern Conference standings show; sixth play Atlanta is a step or two (and three points) behind the top five but levels (and seven points) above the play-in round clump of teams. Atlanta and Nashville, on 42 and 40 points respectively, look set to battle it out for the exciting prospect of finishing sixth rather than seventh. While six games left is enough to break into the upper tier of the conference, Atlanta would need an almost 100% record. The more likely outcome is that Atlanta stays right where it is right now, which means the main goal of the remaining month of the campaign should be to build on those positive early signs sparked by the new signings and generate chemistry with all 3 of them in prominent starting roles ahead of the playoffs.
Atlanta trails the all-time series with a 3W-3D-5L record, including back-to-back defeats this season across MLS and Leagues Cup.
Predicted Starting XIs
Prediction: Atlanta United 1-1 Inter Miami
Atlanta won’t be able to hand Miami its first loss in the Messi era, but it will keep it from racking up another win. The Five Stripes will open the scoring through Saba Lobjanidze but Josef will strike back in the second half.