Hany Mukhtar bagged a brace when these teams met six weeks ago. Courtesy Nashville SC/Major League Soccer
Sydney Hunte covers Atlanta United for Dirty South Soccer, MLSSoccer.com, and more soccer for a variety of other outlets. He’s here to update us on the Five Stripes before tonight’s rivalry renewal
Tim Sullivan: This season probably isn’t going the way folks in Atlanta expected (and certainly not hoped). Is there a sense that Gabriel Heinze’s philosophy simply needs more time to take hold, that he hasn’t had enough of his full roster yet, or that it’s not going to be quite as night-and-day an improvement over Frank de Boer as initially expected?
Sydney Hunte: “I think it’s probably a combination of the first two points. The biggest issue with Atlanta is that it has no one that’s able to put the ball in the net consistently. Josef Martinez is looking to get back to form after that ACL injury he suffered at Nissan Stadium in last year’s season opener (I’ll get to him later), but outside of that, the big question is who can step into his role as striker? Granted, whoever it is will never produce at the level Josef is used to producing at, but I think that Atlanta will take goals any way it can at this point.
“Stemming from that argument, though, the front office has had a few misses with recent acquisitions. Marcelino Moreno hasn’t been able to put it together, Cubo Torres—who’s been filling in for Josef—has had a minimal impact (there’s many among Atlanta’s fanbase campaigning for one of the homegrowns, Jackson Conway, to get a start up top), and Ezequiel Barco has been extremely inconsistent. You also have Erik Lopez who’s shown a few glimpses of strong play but hasn’t been able to put it all together either. So while a bit of it does go back to Heinze’s philosophy fully taking hold, which hasn’t happened yet, I think personnel-wise there’s a great deal left to be desired.”
TS: Speaking of (not) having his full roster, who is expected to fill some of the (big) shoes left by the absences of Brad Guzan, Miles Robinson, and others? Is Josef (questionable on the injury report) expected to hit the field?
SH: “First off, I’m writing this under the assumption that Josef won’t play, so we’ll likely see Torres starting again up front. But turning to goalkeeper, Atlanta do have the benefit of having Alec Kann, who was Atlanta’s starter prior to the arrival of Guzan, available, so he’ll start his first match in some time. We’ll also see Mikey Ambrose filling in at left fullback in George Bello’s absence.
“One of the big questions, and there are many, will be surrounding center back as it’d ideally be Alan Franco as the second option behind the usual pairing of Robinson and Anton Walkes, but he’s questionable. I’m interested in seeing what Heinze does here: a possibility is a Homegrown Player George Campbell, who looked strong with Atlanta’s reserves en route to a professional contract but hasn’t played since coming on as an injury substitute in the 2nd half of Atlanta’s match against FC Cincinnati last year. But I think the most likely option beside Walkes at CB is Alex De John, who has a wealth of professional experience outside MLS.
“Midfield will be an area to watch as well with Barco heading to Tokyo with the Argentina U-23s for the Olympics, Emerson Hyndman out with an ACL, and both Franco Ibarra and Santiago Sosa questionable. Atlanta have just acquired Amar Sejdic from CF Montréal so he should be ready to help be part of a midfield unit that is extremely thin.”
TS: Given the absences, who will have to carry the load (whether it’s a like-for-like replacement for one of those guys or not) for this team?
SH: “I mentioned it a little earlier, but when it comes to carrying the load, ideally that would be Josef in the goal-scoring department, but outside of him Atlanta desperately need secondary scoring as it’s found itself clean-sheeted in 3 straight matches. For a club that has billed itself from the very beginning as one that is based on aggressive, attacking football, that’s beyond unacceptable, and I think that this transfer window will be extremely key for the Five Stripes not only for this season, but seasons to come. Sejdic was acquired from Montréal but I hardly think that will be the only move Atlanta makes; whatever subsequent moves the front office ends up making had better be the right ones or it’ll face even greater ramifications.”
TS: What does this team need to turn around its fortunes? Could one big result flip the confidence? Is it a matter of getting healthy?
SH: “I think yes, possibly if this team can get a result then it should help them grow into confidence. I’ve long thought that once Josef nets a couple of goals that it will open the floodgates, and I believe the same for the entire team as a whole. Sometimes, all it takes is one result to give yourselves momentum and set the course for the remainder of the season, but for Atlanta, those have been few and far between. It doesn’t help that it’s facing a Nashville side that have been on a nice little run of form in past matches and has yet to fall at Nissan Stadium thus far this year.”
TS: How has Atlanta performed so far on the road compared to at home?
SH: “Funny you mentioned that, considering Nashville’s home form! It’s been next to nothing for Atlanta United thus far away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Granted, it’s not been particularly great at home (2 wins and 3 draws through 5 matches in MLS play), but through 6 away matches, it’s lost 3 and drawn 3, with 2 more draws away from the Benz in CCL. With its injury and player availability situation right now, I’m not very confident in that part of the story changing by the end of Wednesday night.”
TS: Do you have any predictions for the game?
SH: “I think it’s a 2-0 Nashville win. Too many chips are stacked against Atlanta in this one: 4 players on international duty, a key substitute out due to injury on top of your starting midfielder’s ACL injury, and as many as 5 others potentially being unable to go, and that’s coupled with a poor run of form away from home. Since covering and following the club from its inception, I don’t think I’ve seen an availability issue as dire as the one Atlanta are facing heading into Nashville, and if Atlanta are to somehow steal a point on the road, it’ll count itself very fortunate.”