Friday Forecast: A Stronger Chicago Fire Presents Challenges for Atlanta United

Since 2009, the Chicago Fire have played in one playoff game. For a club with an MLS Cup and a Supporters’ Shield in its trophy cabinet, this is unacceptable. The last two seasons have been even worse, the Fire have been the worst team in Major League Soccer.

Questions surrounded Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez about what he would do to change the club’s trajectory during the offseason. Rodriguez responded by bringing in Hungarian national team forward Nemanja Nikolić as a Designated Player, three-time MLS Cup champion Juninho, and U.S. national team midfielder Dax McCarty.

Chicago manager Veljko Paunović wants his team to be able to control possession and build up attacks through passing out of its defense. Last season, the Fire struggled to do that because of their personnel. McCarty and Juninho give the team two strong passers in defensive midfield positions. McCarty will often drop into the backline to help in possession. His passes have been the springboard for each of Chicago’s goals this season, setting up eventual assists.

So far, so good for Chicago’s new additions. The Fire have not lost yet in 2017. A season-opening draw in Columbus was followed up by a 2-0 shutout win at home against Real Salt Lake. They will provide a strong test for Atlanta United on Saturday.

The Five Stripes earned their first win in club history last week over fellow expansion team Minnesota United. The 6-1 win was punctuated by Josef Martinez’s hat trick that earned him MLS Player of the Week honors and Miguel Almirón’s two-goal-and-one-assist performance. It is still very early in the season, but Atlanta sits one point behind Chicago in the Eastern Conference standings.

Pressure Points

  • Atlanta’s press vs. Chicago’s backline: The Fire like to build their attacks out of the back. Their possessions usually start with their defenders and involve McCarty and Juninho. Atlanta’s pressing style will force Chicago to speed up its play and could cause turnovers. United needs to prevent McCarty from receiving the ball as often as possible.
  • Atlanta’s Yamil Asad and Tito Villalba vs. Chicago’s Michael Harrington and Brandon Vincent:  The Fire’s outside backs are the most vulnerable part of their defense. Asad and Villalba will have one-on-one opportunities to take advantage. They can turn the game in Atlanta’s favor.
  • Chicago’s David Accam vs. Atlanta’s Tyrone Mears:  Accam is the most dangerous player on the field for the Fire. His speed can beat almost anyone in the league. With Atlanta’s outside backs pushing so high up the field typically, Mears has to be careful in transition with Accam.
  • Chicago’s Nemanja Nikolić vs. Atlanta’s center backs:  Nikolić is not a speedy forward, but he is a strong striker who can finish off chances in the box. He featured for Hungary at last summer’s European Championships and his physicality will be a handful for United’s Michael Parkhurst and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez.
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