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Match preview: Atlanta United vs. FC Cincinnati

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Atlanta look to avoid making it 0-for-2 at the MLS Is Back Tournament.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United’s opening act in the MLS Is Back Tournament on Saturday didn’t go according to plan, but it will look to get in the win column on Thursday morning against FC Cincinnati (9 a.m ET, ESPN). Both teams are sitting on 0 points: Florian Valot’s 4th-minute tally stood up as the New York Red Bulls came away with a 1-0 win against Atlanta following a weather delay, while Columbus Crew SC rode a pair of goals in either half - 2 by Gyasi Zardes - to cruise past Cincy 4-0.

It could always be worse

I know that for Atlanta sports fans, the natural bent is to look at the glass half-empty. But as tough a night as the 5 Stripes had, at least they weren’t FC Cincinnati, who were put to the sword by Columbus Crew SC in the latest chapter of the Hell Is Real derby. Columbus dominated possession (62.1-37.9%) en route to a win, which is basically the reverse of several Atlanta United games under Frank de Boer and certainly on Saturday.

But does the result say more about Cincinnati than it does Columbus? I think it’s the former: it’s tough to point to legitimate, consistent finishing talent on the roster (its leading scorer last year was Allan Cruz, with 7); it’s been a side that has quicly built a reputation of shipping goals at an alarming rate; and it’s on its 3rd coach in less than 18 months. In a group featuring Atlanta, Red Bulls and Crew SC, the deck was always stacked against FCC to advance to the knockout stage, and its performance on Saturday didn’t dispel any doubts of them doing so.

A must win...for both clubs

I felt that Atlanta would advance out of the group stage with Red Bulls, and I still believe that. And while a loss to Cincy won’t mean Atlanta are completely done, it’ll be darn difficult for it to avoid a plane ride back home without a win on Thursday morning. Problem is, it’s not always been easy against this group: take the 1-1 draw last year at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the 2-0 win at Nippert Stadium that featured an eye-popping Josef Martinez individual goal as part of a brace. (Josef, in case you haven’t heard, isn’t in Florida.) Even the Josef-less 2-1 pre-lockdown win in March at the Benz wasn’t an absolute cakewalk.

That brings us, again, to the main concern, and that’s where goals will come from in Josef’s absence. The chances were there against RBNY: George Bello hit the woodwork in the 1st half, Manuel Castro is probably still wondering how he didn’t score, while Adam Jahn’s late-game header was foiled by David Jensen to keep the 5 Stripes off the board.

de Boer promised some changes to the team sheet - one of which I think will be a shift away from a false 9, possibly meaning Adam Jahn getting the start up top. Whatever XI he trots out, though, can’t repeat Saturday’s effort and come away empty handed.

Bello a bright spot

One player that caught my eye on Saturday was George Bello. Bello was confident along the left side of the pitch throughout the night, and, as mentioned, nearly found the scoresheet in what would have been a 1st-half equalizer.

We’ve not seen a great deal of Bello thanks to a rash of injuries that has hampered his progress, but it seems that every time he is on the field with the first team, he is able to positively affect the match. He is prone to a mistake every now and then, but, again, he’s young and not played a great deal at this level - but the trust de Boer had in him to start him against RBNY on Saturday speaks volumes.