The Chicago Fire take on Atlanta United tonight in their first game in nearly six months at Mercedes Benz Arena. I spoke with David McFarland of Dirty Southern Soccer to discuss what the second game of the season means for both teams.

After winning the MLS Cup in 2018 and reaching the Eastern Conference final in 2019, Atlanta United had a forgettable 2020 season, sacking manager Frank de Boer and finishing 12th in the league. Make way for the East. But with the return of 2018 MVP Josef Martinez from an ACL injury and new manager Gabriel Heinze, Five Stripes fans have hope for 2021.

Heinze should lead Atlanta to a playoff spot with a comfortable lead, McFarland said of his expectations for this 2021 Atlanta United team. It will depend on how long the players take to get used to his style and if Josef [Martinez] can come back in the best way possible. Anything less than a playoff spot is a huge failure.

Atlanta’s season to date

So far, Heinze is doing well, as Atlanta hasn’t lost a game under the Argentine. Two 1-0 victories over Costa Rica’s Alajualense in the CONCACAF Champions League were followed by a solid 0-0 draw at Orlando City.

Getting a point in Orlando will work. We also beat Alajualense and inflicted their first defeat in months. But scoring has been a challenge so far with only one open goal against Atlanta.

And Atlanta had problems with their offense last year. The 2020 team was the worst team in MLS since 2017 in terms of goals added (g+) in the final third and the second worst 2020 team in terms of goals g+ on assists and passes received in the first two thirds of the field. Will Martinez’s return help Atlanta’s offense?

So far, it hasn’t helped, McFarland says. Joseph is far from his best. However, this is understandable and part of the recovery process from an ACL tear. I’m sure the goals will come as Heinze’s style of play becomes more natural.

Heinze was a natural choice as Atlanta tries to recapture the glory days under Tata Martino, who came from the same tree as Marcelo Bielsa.

On the field, Atlanta tends to control possession of the ball and play on a high line, albeit without much action in the final third. We haven’t conceded a goal yet, but we’ve also only scored once in open play in three games. Still, the players are not yet fit after a long off-season, and if they continue to adapt to Heinze’s style, the goals should come.

As the combined fire

Atlanta’s defense is good. Bad attack. This goes directly against the Fire’s style of play, which is characterized by an offense that can score at any time, but a defense that is always prone to mistakes and unforced errors.

Robert Berich will be the biggest problem for Atlanta, McFarland said of the Flames’ top scorer in 2020. The Five Stripes have never had to deal with a striker of [his] profile and quality, and if Atlanta’s midfield duo can’t stand up to him, it could be a long night for Atlanta.

David might be right, as Berich himself had a 1.3 xG average last weekend against New England. So far, Atlanta has not allowed that against any team in a game this season.

Predictions

David: 3-1 Atlanta

Justin: 2-1 Atlanta

How to observe

Kickoff tonight at 7:00 p.m. CT. Fans outside the Chicago area can watch the game on ESPN+, while fans in the Chicago area can stream the game on CFFCLive.com.

Be sure to check out all the coverage of the fire by Second City Soccer presented by .

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