The Fire may not have gotten the win last Saturday night, but it was certainly a step in the right direction.
A point against Philadelphia in a 3-3 draw is nothing to turn your nose up at, and to fight back while down 2-1 after leading 1-0 shows a level resiliency we had yet to see from this group in 2021.
Now the Fire will look to be selfish and take all three against an Atlanta United side who are winless in their last five.
Here’s what to look for Saturday night along the Lakefront as we are just hours away at last from full capacity and the full fan experience at Soldier Field…
Atlanta United, similar to the San Jose Earthquakes, employ a man-marking system defensively.
Head coach Gabriel Heinze requires an extremely high level of fitness from his group so they can play this aggressive style of football.
His goal is to win the ball as far up the field as possible, and in order to do that, you need to close down options, time, and space for whomever is on the ball.
In front of the Atlanta backline - that has featured Anton Walkes and Miles Robinson - the man-marking is pretty clear. If the opposing centerback has the ball, all of his options to find an outlet pass usually have a member of the Five Stripes within 2-3 yards of the intended recipient.
They do create a lot of turnovers and opportunities from this setup, but as we’ve seen from both Atlanta and San Jose, if one of the dominos falls, the rest almost assuredly follow.
Any sort of breakdown in a 1-v-1 situation (lost duel, unfortunate deflection, etc.) and it then opens things up in a really significant way for the opposition.
This system requires such an intense level of fitness, but also focus. Recognizing where your mark is, passing players along when necessary, and recovering after a mistake or lost duel are just some of the things to keep in mind if you’re playing for the Five Stripes.
Atlanta United fans may be a bit frustrated with the system, but it certainly bodes for some entertaining football. Amidst their current five-match winless streak they’ve played to some exciting draws with Seattle, Nashville and Philadelphia. Even their most recent affair - a 0-0 draw against the New York Red Bulls - was full of end-to-end football. Both teams probably felt like they could’ve won that match.
The key for the Fire will be taking care of the ball, going direct when called for, and winning individual battles. That last part in particular is important. Since Atlanta is set up man for man, if you win the majority of those 1-v-1s, you can be fairly certain you’ll at least be in the game.
Matching Atlanta’s intensity with off-the-ball movement is also of great significance. Showing support to whoever is on the ball and giving them an option will prove to be vital considering any pass out of the back will see your teammate under an immense amount of pressure. Creating 2-v-1s and mismatches with people movement is another way to break down this unique, stingy system.
The last time these two teams played back on April 24, it was a pretty entertaining fixture. Atlanta won the game 3-1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but the Fire certainly put up a fight.
After going down 1-0 on an Ezequiel Barco screamer, Luka Stojanović answered inside of the first moments of the second half. From there, the Fire had a stretch in which they looked like they would take the lead. Unfortunately, the game totally changed hands when a bizarre deflection off of goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth came off of Johan Kappelhof and wound-up trickling over the line. From there, Atlanta put the clamps down, scored one more, and ended up with a 3-1 win that wasn’t totally indicative of how the 90 minutes unfolded.
The Fire fell victim to the high press and frantic nature of Atlanta’s defensive set up, but I truly believe this team is more mature and ready to handle it this time around. They’ll also give ATL a much different look in the 3-5-2, if they do intend to employ it again. For what it’s worth - and I can promise you it’s not much - I think the three-back worked beautifully against Philadelphia, and I would be shocked if head coach Raphael Wicky moved back to the 4-2-3-1.
Atlanta United has been without forward Josef Martinez for a few weeks now while he was away with Venezuela at Copa America, but he should be available for selection if he is state-side. The Fire have been without Gastón Giménez, who is still in the tournament with Paraguay and will take on Peru in the quarterfinals on Friday evening.
Przemysław Frankowski made his return from international duty in the second half against Philly, and the only wrinkle in sticking with the 3-5-2 is where to put the Poland international. For me, his best qualities are negated a bit when you put him at wing-back. He came on and played centrally against the Union (strictly because of late personnel changes) but I think we can all agree he needs to be out on the wing utilizing his pace further up the field. This is all to say nothing of the fact Boris Sekulić had a great performance on Saturday that earned him Heineken Man of the Match honors.
You could put Frankowski as the second striker along with Robert Berić, but then Ignacio Aliseda is the odd man out.
There are some key decisions to be made with regard to team selection, but this is the problem Wicky wanted to have at the beginning of the season: Options.
Talking with the technical staff over the past few weeks down on the sidelines at Soldier Field has confirmed something I’ve been preaching a bit in these scouting reports.
Ending this winless streak and putting an end to the scoring drought the other night came down and will come down to one thing, and that’s energy.
Every coach who I’ve talked to from Wicky to Frank Klopas to some of our video analysts - they all say the same thing: ENERGY.
It seems like such a simple and controllable asset a footballer can bring to the table, and it is. However, pairing that energy with a high-level of concentration and tactical execution over a 90-minute period is really where the cheese lies.
That combination is an intangible that any footballer will tell you is a necessity in order to be a successful side. It’s not something you can really put into words or pick out from watching film, but it’s an unshakeable belief and faith in the group, in the collective.
From my extremely limited playing experience to the amount of coaches/players I’ve talked to over the years, it is clear that this can really only be achieved by DOING it. Like anything in life, the only way to get good at something is to repeat it. Obviously that winning DNA has been eluding the Fire, but all it takes is that one game to make a dressing room believe. Especially against a side like Atlanta that will require a full performance from the first minute to the last.
I can’t wait to see this team build off of the Philly draw and continue the search for this elusive run of form.
Players are returning from international duty, getting fit, and the roster is almost what it was at the start of preseason.
Energy. That’s what I look forward to seeing at Soldier Field on Saturday night at 7 CT.
I’m also looking forward to the pregame experience at Burnham Downs and our Day of Fútbol. Come say hi to myself, Arlo White and Tony Meola. It should be a great day capped off with three points.