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Signal Intel: What to expect from Atlanta United vs. the Fire

Josef Martinez is back. But is he the Josef Martinez of old?

Toronto FC v Atlanta United - Eastern Conference Finals
Josef Martinez is back for Atlanta United
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

With 2020 done and dusted, and Josef Martinez back in the fold, is Atlanta United back to being, you know, Atlanta United? The Chicago Fire face Atlanta on Saturday, and will be going for the team’s first road win since 2019. For answers, we chatted with David McFarland of Dirty South Soccer.

Ruben Tisch: How is Josef Martinez reintegrating into the squad after being out basically all of last year?

David McFarland: Josef’s return to action is understandably proving to be a process rather than the flip of a switch. He’s started one of Atlanta’s three games while going half an hour the other two, so his minutes are being very carefully managed. As for how the Venezuelan has performed on the pitch, he’s struggled to make a real impact so far. A combination of little service and Josef’s own hesitancy to go 100% his knee after such a serious injury has led to his name being rarely mentioned. Still, it takes time to recover from an ACL tear and I’m confident we’ll start to see him bang in the goals again by the end of 2021.

RT: How are they handling the schedule load both of MLS and Concacaf Champions League?

DM: Atlanta hasn’t yet had to deal with much fixture congestion. Both legs of the Round of 16 finished before the Regular Season began, so the Five Stripes used Alajuelense as more of an extended preseason than anything else. But with a quarter-final matchup with the Philadelphia Union on the horizon, squad rotation could become more of a factor in the upcoming MLS games. That could result in a few changes to the customary XI against Chicago with Philly looming next Tuesday. I would be shocked if Heinze doesn’t value the CCL over the early stages of MLS.

RT: After a season of unstable management, how is the new technical staff working out, and how does Gabriel Heinze compare to de Boer or Tata Martino?

DM: After Atlanta’s de Boer experiment failed in mind-numbing fashion, Gabriel Heinze was the natural pick to try to return to something resembling the Gerardo “Tata” Martino years. Heinze comes off the same Marcelo Biesla inspired coaching tree as Tata and brings back a South American culture to the locker room. Atlanta’s hasn’t started off 2021 on fire, but the early signs are steps in the right direction. The offseason signings all fit a clear plan and identity brought forth by Heinze, whereas de Boer had to coexist with a very Tata-looking roster. The on-pitch action has seen Atlanta look to control possession and play a high line, albeit without much final third action. The Five Stripes are yet to concede but have only one open play goal scored in three games. Still, players are not yet in form after the long off season and once they further adapt to Heinze’s style the goals should come. After the dumpster fire of 2020, it’s a massive relief to see Atlanta has a clear plan once more and while it may take some time, I’m confident Heinze can return the Five Stripes to the top eventually.

RT: When is Kevin Egan’s loan up and when do we get to have him back?

DM: He’s working with WWE as well as being the voice of Atlanta United, so you’ll have to persuade him to find a way to split his time three different ways!

RT: What’s going to happen on Saturday?

DM: Goals have been hard to come by in Atlanta games so far, but Chicago could be the team to change that. I’ll go with a 3-1 win to the Five Stripes with goals from Lisandro Lopez and Ezequiel Barco, though a Robert Beric strike will shatter Atlanta’s shutout run. As for the game, I think Atlanta will hold the majority of possession but chances will be split evenly in an end-to-end affair that neither side can take full control.