Scouting Report | Fire look to play spoiler in Atlanta United home opener

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For those of you who were at Soldier last Saturday night, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

For those of you who were watching on WGN or CFFC Live, you probably still have a good idea.

It was a truly cathartic experience along the lakefront. The noise and energy from around 8,000 Fire faithful was a sight to behold.

It may not have been the result we hoped for after the opening 15 minutes, but there were a lot of good things to build on moving forward as Chicago Fire FC head into week number two of Major League Soccer’s 26th season.

Here’s what to look for as the Fire travel to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the ATL for Atlanta United’s 2021 home opener on Saturday night:


As my partner Tony Meola harped on all throughout Saturday’s broadcast, the movement - both on and off the ball - was exceptional from head coach Raphael Wicky’s group. The interchanging, fluid football on display at Soldier Field was a reminder of how good this team can be in the attacking third.

It was really something to see such a high level of understanding amongst a group that was playing in its first competitive match of the season. Typically, sharpness in the final third and final product are the last piece of the puzzle in the chronological timeline of a football club. The Fire wasted no time at all. The first goal - that included four one-touch passes in the buildup - was just downright beautiful. There’s really no other way to describe it.

What’s even more impressive is that offseason signing Chinonso Offor – an MLS rookie - was technically playing out of position on the wing in his Fire debut, yet the level of cohesion between he and the other attacking players was very high.

This football version of poetry in motion is going to be crucial against an Atlanta side that has yet to concede a goal in three competitive matches thus far in 2021, including CONCACAF Champions League play.


After the most disappointing season we’ve seen from Atlanta United in their brief history in 2020, they are now under new guidance in the form of Gabriel Heinze.

Alongside Heinze’s appointment, ATL brass brought in some highly-touted talent from across South America, with a heavy Argentine flavor. Atlanta also said goodbye to some big names that have been on the roster for a couple years, including Eric Remedi, Pity Martinez, Jon Gallagher, and former Fire captain Jeff Larentowicz.

In total, Atlanta saw 14 players depart (including those sent on loans) and brought in 13. Sound somewhat familiar, Fire fans?

The big one is obviously the return of 2018 Golden Boot winner, Josef Martinez, who tore his ACL in the season opener last year against Nashville SC.

The Five Stripes are looking to get back to hoisting trophies on a regular basis and are off to a solid start in 2021. Two 1-0 results against Costa Rican outfit Alajuelense in the CCL’s Round of 16 led into a 0-0 draw at Orlando City SC to open their regular season last weekend.

Atlanta seem to be much more disciplined defensively than what we saw from them last year. It’s no surprise, considering their head coach was a pretty decent defender himself having played for the likes of Paris St-Germain, Real Madrid and Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.


It would be very easy to just dive into the tactics right now for Atlanta, but in all honesty, it depends on what type of team Heinze is going to roll out given the fact that they’ll resume CCL play just three days after the Fire’s visit. It’s also early to make any sort of judgement on a team that has so many new pieces and a revamped technical staff.

No MLS team has won CCL in its modern format (2008-present), and there are currently five MLS teams who are in the eight-team quarterfinal field. This is statistically the best chance the league has had to win the tournament that has been dominated by Mexican teams for years. Atlanta is matched up against Philadelphia in the quarters, and they’ll play the first of two legs on Tuesday at home.

I’ve spoken to a number of coaches and executives over the years when it comes to balancing CCL and the beginning of MLS regular season, and each one has a different approach. Some throw everything at CCL. Some try to strike a balance. Some refuse to sacrifice league results in the name of an international competition (even though it naturally happens anyway).

It can’t be understated how much being in the midst of a heated international competition mid-week takes it out of you over the weekend. We see it all the time in Europe, and have seen it here domestically too. There is, of course, no direct correlation between success in CCL and lack of success in the league over a seven-month season, but it’s tough to ignore the facts. In 2018, Toronto FC got to the CCL final against Chivas, then finished 11th in the league and failed to qualify for the playoffs a season after hoisting the MLS Cup. In 2019, Sporting Kansas City reached the semifinals against Monterrey, and ended up finishing in last in the league in their worst regular season in recent memory.

Of course, there are tons of other factors for these two examples, but it’s also tough to completely ignore what’s in front of us.

All of this is to say that we won’t see a fully loaded, league-focused Atlanta on Saturday night. Heinze has mixed and matched the lineups trying to integrate some new guys and get Josef Martinez back to full match fitness. It’s really anyone’s guess as to who or what we will see from Atlanta in their home opener in MLS as they try to balance a 72-hour turn around with Philly on the not-so-distant-horizon.


Tactically, Heinze has set up his group in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 depending on the moment.

What we have seen from Atlanta so far has been a strong defensive mentality paired with just enough quality in the attacking third to get over the line. Miles Robinson and Anton Walkes have gotten the bulk of the minutes at centerback, but I expect to see Designated Player Alan Franco get a run-out at centerback either this weekend or midweek against Philly.

Santiago Sosa, Atlanta’s most expensive offseason transfer at $5M, has emerged as a centerpiece of this group in the engine room. The 21-year-old displays immense composure on the ball and a strong work rate to go along with it. This team has been looking for a replacement for Darlington Nagbe since they traded him to Columbus, and - while Sosa goes about his business in a very different way - they may just have found someone who has the potential to similarly influence the game.

Ezequiel Barco is still trying to regain the form he displayed a couple years ago. In the second leg of their Round of 16 CCL tie, it looked like he is enjoying playing for his new manager so far. He covered an enormous amount of ground, and was integral in one of their 1-0 wins with an assist on Jurgen Damm’s game-winner. We’ve seen him as both a 10 and as a winger this year so far.

Emerson Hyndman has been sitting slightly in front of Sosa (who typically splits the centerbacks in possession, similar to Gastón Giménez on the Fire) and is playing some good football. Brooks Lennon has put in some professional performances at the right back position, and George Bello continues to grow at left back and prove he’s dangerous on the ball. Damm provides a good spark off the bench, and we may even see him start Saturday night. He has relatively fresh legs, having not started a game yet.


The Fire are looking to build off of an encouraging first performance against a seasoned and quality New England side. Yes, there were some mistakes (both off of restarts) but those are fixable. The good news is that the boys looked pretty fit for week one, and thoroughly enjoyed playing in front of the Fire faithful. I imagine there will be a determined group on the field Saturday night, hungry for the three points that were snatched off their plate in a matter of 15 minutes or so last weekend.

The starting XI that Atlanta releases before kickoff will be a clear message as to where the club’s priorities lie. I can’t imagine it will be anything too drastic on either side of the coin, considering they have a real chance to advance in CCL but also want to put on a solid performance in front of a 50% capacity crowd in their regular season opener.

Chicago will rely heavily again on midfielders Álvaro Medrán and Giménez (playing against his former coach, Heinze) to dictate the tempo on the road. I expect a big game out of Przemysław Frankowski with Bello bombing forward from the outside back position. There will be plenty of room for the Poland native to operate and run at the opposing centerbacks.

This is also the first road test of the year for Wicky’s team, who went winless on the road in 2020. I think a statement game is in order for this side, who definitely have something to prove away from Soldier Field.

See you Saturday night at 7 p.m. CT on WGN and CFFC Live.