Despite some early opportunities and the return of a star striker, Atlanta United fell 2-0 to the Chicago Fire in a frustrating day on the road.
The first headlines came with the starting lineup, with midfielder Kevin Kratz replacing Miguel Almiron in the starting lineup after the Paraguayan's international call-up earlier this week. And there was good news for Five Stripe nation, with Josef Martinez making his return from long-term injury to earn a spot on the bench in the matchday squad. The full starting lineup: Alec Kann (GK), Greg Garza (LB), Leandro González Pirez (CB), Michael Parkhurst (CB), Tyrone Mears (RB), Jeff Larentowicz (CM), Carlos Carmona (CM), Kevin Kratz (CAM), Julian Gressel (RW), Yamil Asad (LW), and Tito Villalba (ST).
Atlanta United's heavy pressure was the theme of the opening stages, with the first real chance of the game falling to the red, black and gold. Tito Villalba beat the offside trap well in the 12th minute and found himself one-on-one with the goalkeeper. He collected the ball well and beat Sampson through his leg, but the ball skidded just wide of the far post. Villalba would have another huge chance to take the lead 16 minutes later. Greg Garza's fantastic pressure dispossessed a Chicago defender deep in his own area found Villalba with a cut-back pass beautifully inside the box, but the Argentine's shot screwed wide.
Chicago would make Atlanta pay for their missed opportunities just a minute later in the 29th minute. David Accam beat the offside trap to force a 2-on-1 with Alec Kann, who did well to force the attacker to the sideline. But Accam was able to lay off a pass to the onrushing Luis Solignac, who first-timed a shot past Larentowicz and into the otherwise empty net to make it 1-0.
Atlanta would have a few opportunities to equalize before the halftime whistle, particularly from Greg Garza. The left back played a beautiful one-two pass to get behind the defense in the box, but his powerful shot from a tight angle was saved well from the Chicago goalkeeper. Then Kevin Kratz floated an outswinging free kick inches over the head of an open Tito Villalba just before the halftime whistle, but the teams would go to halftime with a 1-0 scoreline.
The second half continued much like the first, with Atlanta holding the majority of possession but struggling to make clear-cut chances. Tata Martino added serious firepower to his attack near the hour mark with Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron coming on for Kevin Kratz and Jeff Larentowicz. Chicago countered with defensive changes to solidify their lead with two defenders, Drew Connor and Jonathan Campbell, coming on to form a five-man back line and pack their defense.
But Chicago would be the next to score. Alec Kann made a great save to deny Chicago a one-on-one opportunity when Matt Polster got behind the defense in the 68th minute. But the ensuing corner kick bounced into the hand of Tyrone Mears with Bastian Schweinsteiger lurking behind, and the ref pointed to the spot. Chicago's top scorer Nemanja Nikolic sent Kann the wrong way with the penalty kick to score his league-leading 13th goal to make it 2-0 Chicago in the 70th minute.
That's all Chicago would need, sitting very deep in the final stages with five defenders and a two-goal lead to protect. Brandon Vazquez came closest in the 85th minute, winning a header and firing a wicked volley just over the bar from eighteen yards. But despite dominating possession, Atlanta struggled to break through the packed defense, with the game ending 2-0 to Chicago.
The silver lining for Atlanta is the return of their star striker, Josef Martinez, who got valuable game minutes in the next stage of his return from a long-term injury. Atlanta will hope to get back to winning ways in the league next weekend as they return to the friendly confines of Bobby Dodd Stadium to face the Columbus Crew, with tickets now on sale here. But first, they will host USL's Charleston Battery in the team's debut in the U.S. Open Cup at Fifth Third Bank Stadium on Wednesday. Tickets for that are also still available, click here to make sure you save your spot for the historic match.