1. Since the departure of Gabriel Heinze, Atlanta United has been arguably the hottest team in the league, going from the bottom of the Eastern Conference table to almost a certainty for the MLS Cup Playoffs. What’s been the most noticeable difference for Atlanta, and do you expect them to continue in their current form for long?
That’s a really difficult question to answer and one that will probably be pondered for quite some time. The simple explanation is a noticeable improvement in two areas. Firstly, on the field, the tactical mindset has gotten much less complicated. Heinze’s focus was solely on his system and implementing it no matter what, that the fun seemed to be sucked out of the team. Gone was the individualistic and creative mindset that makes this sport great and all that was left were robots trying to understand their instructions. It made for a horrible combination of poor play and even worse team morale. Once Rob Valentino took over as interim manager the proverbial chains were taken off and the result was a more energetic and creative team. Pineda’s appointment as manager has only improved upon what Valentino brought to the table. The Mexican’s tactical nuance along with the mindset of letting the players go out and have fun on the field has produced some pure magic. All signs point to Pineda being exactly what he was advertised as, a brilliant tactical mind with a beautiful personality to go with it. Barring unforeseen circumstances it’s hard to see anything but long term success in Atlanta as long as Pineda is given the tools his predecessors were.
2. Atlanta’s notched ten goals in the past three games. Outside of Josef Martinez, who’s been key to United’s attack, and what should Philadelphia Union fans expect to see from ATL’s attack?
The key has undoubtedly been the arrival of new Designated Player, Luiz Araujo. The Brazilian winger has added a dimension to the attack that has been missing since Miguel Almiron left after the 2018 season. He’s pacey, creative, tricky, and direct. Not only does he add some individual brilliance in the form of goals and amazing skills, he makes everyone around him better and raises the level of Atlanta’s attacking group. Josef Martinez is nursing a sore knee and his participation in this match is up in the air. However, with the emergence of Ezequiel Barco over the past two months as an integral force, Atlanta has plenty of firepower to put fear in any team they play in. Expect to see the ball on the left-wing a ton with Araujo attempting to make good things happen as he has since coming into the team.
3. Where is Atlanta’s weak point, and how do you think the Union will look to expose that?
Atlanta’s weakness is clearly giving up wide-open 45 yard shots to the opposing team’s center backs (still not over that Jakob Glesnes goal). But seriously, the area that the Union can take advantage of is set pieces. I would argue that with a healthy Santiago Sosa and the arrival of Araujo that there really aren’t many weak points on this team during the run of play. Where they still struggle is defending set pieces. Whether it’s a corner kick or a free kick in a dangerous area, they are susceptible to conceding if the execution is on point.
4. What are you lineup and score predictions, as well as any projected absences?
Lineup (3-5-2): Guzan; Campbell, Robinson, Walkes; Lennon, Sosa, Rossetto, Moreno, Bello; Barco, Araujo
I predict a wild and open match with the team sharing the points. 2-2.
Josef Martinez is a doubt with a knee issue that popped up at the end of last match. He’s likely due for some rest anyways, so I’ll wager that he doesn’t even make the trip up. He’s the only new member of the injured list that we know of. Midfielder Franco Ibarra has returned to training and could come back at any time. Center back Alan Franco is suspended due to yellow card accumulation.