Atlanta United faces tough challenge against Cincinnati on Saturday

Atlanta United will get its eighth chance this season to win consecutive MLS games and increase the probability of making the playoffs when it plays at Cincinnati on Saturday.

The Five Stripes are two points below the seven-team playoff line with 11 games remaining. Cincinnati is in sixth place with 32 points, four more than Atlanta United.

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The team is coming off a confidence-boosting 2-1 victory against Seattle, earned on a last-minute goal by Andrew Gutman.

“We know that we can’t be satisfied because we still haven’t won anything yet,” centerback JuanJo Purata said. “There’s still a lot to play for, and we haven’t proven anything yet. So we’ve got to continue to work and try and get good results.”

Cincinnati will offer a stern test, perhaps more than Seattle because the Queen City hosts have an offense that has the subtlety of a hammer. It is led by Brandon Vazquez, a former Atlanta United player who has muscled and moved his way to 14 goals this season and into scenarios for the U.S. men’s national team.

If a team can stop Vazquez, there is Brenner, who has scored eight goals. If Vazquez and Brenner are contained, there is Luciano Costa, who has six goals and an MLS-best 14 assists.

“I think the attackers are in very good form,” Atlanta United manager Gonzalo Pineda said. “I would say, especially in transition when there is a lot of space. They are very good.”

As good as Cincinnati’s attack is, its defense is just as bad. The team has given up 43 goals, fourth-most in the league. It acquired U.S. men’s national team centerback Matt Miazga in in the recently closed transfer window to try to shore up the defense. He is expected to play Saturday.

Atlanta United’s attack and defense should be strengthened by the additions of Brooks Lennon, who Pineda said is available after recovering an MCL injury, and Gutman, who played in the second half of the victory against Seattle. Despite missing nine games, Lennon ranks second on the team in chances created (41).

Pineda also unveiled a tactical wrinkle against Seattle by using Marcelino Moreno and Thiago Almada as attacking midfielders, with Santiago Sosa as the defensive midfielder. Pineda typically prefers one attacking midfielder and two defensive midfielders. Pineda wouldn’t say if he will use that set-up Saturday.

“We have to see what midfield can provide more balance to us,” he said.

Cincinnati also could be the perfect opponent to get Josef Martinez going. The striker hasn’t scored in his past six appearances, but has scored six goals against Cincinnati, including one last season that pushed the Five Stripes into the playoffs.

Atlanta United played arguably its best game when the teams met earlier this season. Despite taking 22 shots, and putting six on goal, Atlanta United couldn’t score. It even missed a penalty. The game ended in a 0-0 draw.

Pineda said he doesn’t expect the type of game Saturday.

“They’re in different form,” he said. “Now there are more motivated. I mean, of course, Acosta and Vazquez are coming back from MLS All-Stars. That gives you a boost as well. So it will be a very, very different challenge.”

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Atlanta United’s 2022 MLS schedule

Feb. 27 Atlanta United 3, Sporting KC 1

March 5 Colorado 3, Atlanta United 0

March 13 Atlanta United 2, Charlotte 1

March 19 Atlanta United 3, Montreal 3

April 2 Atlanta United 1, D.C. United 0

April 10 Charlotte 1, Atlanta United 0

April 16 Atlanta United 0, Cincinnati 0

April 24 Miami 2, Atlanta United 1

April 30 Montreal 2, Atlanta United 1

May 7 Atlanta United 4, Chicago 1

May 15 Atlanta United 2, New England 2

May 21 Atlanta United 2, Nashville 2

May 28 Columbus 2, Atlanta United 1

June 19 Atlanta United 2, Miami 0

June 25 Toronto 2, Atlanta United 1

June 30 New York Red Bulls 2, Atlanta United 1

July 3 Atlanta United 2, NYCFC 2

July 9 Austin 3, Atlanta United 0

July 13 Atlanta United 2, Real Salt Lake 1

July 17 Atlanta United 1, Orlando 1

July 24 L.A. Galaxy 2, Atlanta United 0

July 30 Atlanta United 0, Chicago 0

August 6 Atlanta United 2, Seattle 1

August 13 at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m. BSSO/BSSE

August 17 vs. New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

August 21 at Columbus, 5:30 p.m., FS1

August 28 vs. D.C. United, 4 p.m., UNIV

August 31 at Philadelphia, 7 p.m., FS1

Sept. 4 at Portland, 5:30 p.m., FOX

Sept. 10 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept. 14 at Orlando, 6 p.m., BSSO/BSSE

Sept 17 vs. Philadelphia, 3:30 p.m., UniMas

Oct. 1 at New England, 1 p.m., UniMas