Match Preview: Atlanta United at Chicago Fire

Atlanta United are coming off an exhilarating home win against an Eastern Conference foe, but there’s no time to celebrate as they jet off to Chicago to take on the Fire in another conference matchup. The Fire are on a bit of a skid, without a win in their past seven matches, but they’re a talented side that always poses a tough challenge for the Five Stripes, especially on their home pitch.

The match kicks off at 8 p.m. ET from Chicago on Fox Sports South. For all the details on how to follow the match, click here.

Atlanta United (9-6-2)

The Five Stripes are in a great run of form with ten wins in their past thirteen matches, but they will have to prove themselves again on the road just a few days after their riveting 2-1 home win over Montreal this weekend. But if they can, it will be another step closer to the top of the Eastern Conference with matches still in hand.

They will have to do it without some key playmakers, with Frank de Boer telling reporters this week that both Ezequiel Barco and Tito Villalba will have to spend another match out of the lineup with injury. Josef Martinez has just returned from international duty at Copa America in Brazil, and it remains to be seen whether or not he is ready to jump right into the starting line up. But the Five Stripes have shown they have the players to succeed regardless. Brandon Vazquez’s red-hot U.S. Open Cup form has secured his place as a fully-capable fill-in for Martinez at the striker position, while it was Justin Meram’s turn to steal the show with an MLS Team of the Week performance from the left wing over the weekend against Montreal. Add in players like Pity Martinez, Julian Gressel, Dion Pereira and even Darlington Nagbe ready to push into the attacking third, De Boer still has plenty of firepower in the attack.

Behind them, it’s nearly a full slate of players at Frank de Boer’s disposal, with the long-term injuries to Kevin Kratz and George Bello the only other injury issues to speak of. Eric Remedi and Jeff Larentowicz are starting XI caliber for any team in central midfield, and have shown they can play together to add extra bite to the midfield as well. And Chicago will have to get past one of the best defenses in the league this season, a team that has conceded just 15 goals in 17 matches so far. Leandro González Pirez and Miles Robinson have been the center back pairing of choice, and look for some combination of Franco Escobar, Florentin Pogba, Michael Parkhurst and Brek Shea to fill out the fullback ranks in front of Brad Guzan’s goal. While the Five Stripes are missing some key attacking players, if they can keep the solid foundation that has been the bedrock of their success so far, they are capable of taking points from any venue in MLS.

Chicago Fire (4-7-7)

The Chicago Fire are in the middle of their worst stretch of the season, in tenth place and without a win in their past seven matches. But don’t let their position in the table fool you, there are plenty of talented players on this roster that Atlanta United will have to be on top of their game to stop.

It all starts with several players that have spent large chunks of their careers overseas in Europe. Look for former Bayern Munich legend Bastian Schweinsteiger to try to get on the ball early and often, dictating the play with his clever, short passing out of the back line. He’ll be looking to provide to service to former Atlético Madrid midfielder Nico Gaitán, the club’s biggest offseason addition, who has the vision and class to beat his man on the dribble or find the defense-splitting pass. Former LaLiga winger Aleksandar Katai has been perhaps Chicago’s best player since joining the club last season, constantly looking to cut in on his dominant right foot from the left wing and combining with Gaitán in the middle. And of course the 2017 MLS Golden Boot leader could line up in the front line, with Hungarian striker Nemanja Nikolic one of the best one-touch finishers in the league if he can get the service he requires.

But it’s not all experienced European vets. Dax McCarty has been one of the best central midfielders in MLS over the past five years, and his partnership with young American defensive midfielder Mo Adams is a powerful duo with both players equally adept at breaking up the play and turning the ball the other way for a counter. And with young American playmaker Djordje Mihailovic off on international duty, it could pave the way for the two-striker system the Fire deployed in Atlanta, with MLS veteran CJ Sapong another powerful weapon in the front line. No matter who lines up, you can expect a physical, man-to-man marking style that has disrupted Atlanta’s slick passing style in the past. The Five Stripes will have to be at the top of their game to come out with a road win against that system no matter who lines up.

It’s another important Eastern Conference matchup on the road for the Five Stripes that you won’t want to miss. Tune in at 8:00 p.m. ET Wednesday on Fox Sports South –– or click here for all the ways to catch the action.