The season is on for the Chicago Fire. After blowing an early lead in a 2-2 draw at home against the New England Revolution, they hope to find a way to obtain and keep a lead on the road against Atlanta United. Atlanta United, for their own part, have also been struggling the past couple seasons; but with a change at head coach and a key player returning from injury, anything can happen.
Chicago doesn’t appear to be nursing any injuries, with defender Mauricio Pineda only missing out on the last game due to coach Raphael Wicky’s decision to stick with the team he worked with in preseason. While not injured, Luka Stojanovic is reportedly not 90 minutes fit just yet. Atlanta United has no major injuries to report, although former Fire draft pick Mo Adams is still out with a sports hernia. Josef Martinez is also slowly returning to 90 minutes fitness. Martinez picked up a total of about 90 minutes across Atlanta’s two matches against Alajuelense in the Champions’ League, but only came on in the 75th minute as a substitute in their season opener in Orlando. It’s uncertain if he’s ready to start yet in this coming match.
Here are three things to watch out for in this matchup:
On the Road Again
After opening the season at home, the Chicago Fire will now go out on a road trip for the first time this season. For other teams, this means very little. For the Fire, this is a very bad omen. The team has an unfortunate recent history of terrible performances away from home. The most famous stretch of time was when the Fire went without a single win on the road starting from their last win in New England on July 12th, 2014 all the way until August 20th of 2016. That is a gap of over two years where the Fire could not win away from home. But that was under different leadership. That streak started with Frank Yallop and ended with Veljko Paunovic, two coaches that are no longer here.
Although, the Fire have already started the counter on a new streak, solely under Raphael Wicky. The Fire’s last road win was the final game of the season in 2019. It’s was Bastian Schweinsteiger’s last match and a 5-2 victory over Orlando City on October 6th, 2019. Since then, a pandemic happened. So it’s understandable that there’s an extended period of time between that and the next Fire road win. Except that road win hasn’t happened yet. The team began the 2020 season on the road, losing in Seattle and taking a draw in New England. Counting the #MLSisBack Cup games as a “neutral location”, Chicago did not win a single road game in 2020.
So we’ll see how it goes down in Atlanta, a year and a half since the Fire’s last road win.
When watching Atlanta United’s attack in their last game against Orlando City, it felt like something was missing. It was a similar feeling to what it was like watching Toronto FC after they lost Giovinco or the Chicago Red Stars without Sam Kerr. Josef Martinez is an integral part to the Atlanta United offense and the system just doesn’t work without him out there. In his first three seasons in MLS Martinez scored about a goal per game on average through his 83 total appearances, so being without him for an entire season has got to be damaging.
But unlike Toronto or the Red Stars, Atlanta won’t need to look elsewhere. Josef Martinez is still on the team. The question is when he’s going to be ready to go back to his previous strike rate. Martinez tore his ACL in March of last year, an injury that usually spells disaster for any athlete. Though it’s over a year later and he’s fully cleared to play, he still needs to get up to speed with the rest of the team. It’s reasonable to wonder if this may be the game for him to come back to, seeing as the Chicago defense isn’t exactly respected at the moment.
Collapse Into Now
I’ve talked about the Chicago Fire’s pretty-looking attack and their less-than-stellar defense quite a bit. But it’s time to consider the two things together. After all, all eleven players on the pitch are involved in both aspects. That’s where the problem starts. After giving up two goals in the first half against the New England Revolution, the Fire’s attack started to back off. Why? Because the midfield stopped helping with the press and began tracking back more often in an attempt to stabilize the defense
How do you balance these two realities of having an extremely dangerous attack, but being forced to limit the attack’s effectiveness due to deficiencies in the defense? They could continue with the way they were playing in the home opener, grabbing early leads and then collapsing back into the defense whenever there’s trouble. Or, alternatively, they can just leave the defense to their own devices. You can’t win if you can’t score and the other team can’t score if they don’t have the ball in their attacking third. Keep the press, keep scoring, and hope the defense never has to see the ball.