Gonzalo Pineda is expecting a difficult first match as Atlanta United head coach when his side welcome Nashville SC to Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday.
The former Seattle Sounders assistant was named as Gabriel Heinze’s successor two weeks ago but only took charge of his first training session earlier this week.
Rob Valentino has more the steadied the ship between the Heinze and Pineda tenures thanks to four wins in a row, lifting Atlanta to the brink of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Pineda’s United bow is against the toughest side to beat in MLS, with Nashville having lost just two times in 20 matches this campaign.
“They are never easy. Nothing is easy in MLS,” Pineda said. “It will be a challenge, but I’m very confident with my team, especially after what I’ve seen in training.
“I hope the players don’t feel like it’s a big change in terms of system because that wasn’t the idea. I think there’s been just little tweaks to what they’ve been doing.”
Nashville are five points better off than Atlanta with a game in hand, but they have won just one of their last five matches, most recently drawing 1-1 with Orlando City SC.
The Boys in Gold have had a 10-day rest between matches and head coach Gary Smith hopes that breather works in his side’s favor against their rivals.
“The weekend off gave me an opportunity to maybe offer the guys a tad more time to let their bodies recover and regenerate, even spend time with their families,” Smith said.
“It was a nice opportunity to give them that moment, but also to get the schedule back on track in a normal week and with a fresh group of players, so to speak, physically.
“I think the guys were in a good spot when they came back, very focused.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Atlanta United – Josef Martinez
Martinez’s form has taken a turn for the better since the departure of Heinze, the Venezuela international having scored four times in his last five appearances. However, he has not found the net in either of the two matches he has played against Nashville, making them the only team he has faced and failed to score against in his MLS career.
Nashville SC – Hany Mukhtar
C.J. Sapong has been scoring goals for fun in recent weeks, with four in his most recent stretch of three games, but credit must also go to Mukhtar. The former Germany Under-21s international has assisted three of those goals and has a combined 15 goal involvements in 19 outings this season.
KEY OPTA FACTS
– Both meetings between Atlanta and Nashville in 2021 have finished 2-2 after Atlanta won two of the three meetings (L1) last season.
– Atlanta have scored two goals in all five meetings between the teams, the only opponent against whom the Five Stripes have done so in their MLS history.
– Atlanta have responded from a club-record 12-match winless run with a four-match winning streak. The four straight wins comes after winning just three of their previous 25 MLS matches (D11 L11), dating back to early October 2020.
– Nashville are winless in their seven away matches this season (D5 L2), one of three teams without a road win in MLS in 2021 (along with Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo). Nashville are also the only team unbeaten at home this season, winning seven times and drawing six at Nissan Stadium.
– Only Luciano Acosta (six goals) has scored more times against Atlanta than Mukhtar (four). Mukhtar’s four goals against the Five Stripes are the most he has scored against any team in his MLS career.