The race for a postseason berth in the MLS Eastern Conference could not be any closer, and Atlanta United will try to move above that playoff line when they host FC Cincinnati at Mercedes Benz Stadium on Wednesday.
Atlanta are one point behind CF Montreal for that final spot, while the Orange-and-Blue are currently 13th, 10 points back of the Five Stripes.
When he took over as manager Gonzalo Pineda wanted to see Atlanta play a more vertical, fast and fluid game, built on quick passing, and that is precisely what his team delivered on Friday, as the former Seattle Sounders assistant earned his first victory as the Five Stripes boss.
This team have never had a problem when it comes to maintaining possession, even under their previous manager Gabriel Heinze, but it is about doing something when you have the ball, and for one of the first times this year, we saw Atlanta do a great job of breaking the lines and create plenty of good chances with the ball, beating Orlando City 3-0 last week.
While it was a fine performance from start to finish, the job is not nearly close to being done, as they remain just outside of the playoff picture, but with their next three matches at home, it is an excellent opportunity for them to climb into the top seven.
They have done a pretty good job when it comes to limiting their opponents' scoring chances in their own third of the field at home lately, allowing no more than three shots on target in three of their last four matches and collecting three clean sheets.
Not only are the players starting to execute the tactics employed by Pineda, but there appears to be a lot more harmony within this group than we had seen throughout much of the year.
In five meetings against Cincinnati, Atlanta have never lost, drawing them once this year and winning their two encounters against them at Mercedes Benz Stadium in 2020, 2-0 and 2-1, respectively.
They say that all good things must come to an end, and that could also be true about bad things, and Cincy ended something really bad last weekend, beating Toronto 2-0 to snap a 12-match winless run.
In doing so, the Orange-and-Blue also captured their first victory at TQL Stadium and kept their slim playoff hopes alive.
It is obvious that they are more than capable of handling themselves against the teams at the bottom of the table, with their last three wins coming versus Toronto (twice) and the Chicago Fire, but now they face the prospect of having to face three sides (Atlanta, New York City FC and DC United) who are either above the playoff line or right in the thick of the playoff race, so Jaap Stam knows that they must find more consistency in their game.
They also cannot afford to make mistakes against those teams, who are a lot more clinical in front of goal than Toronto.
Cincinnati have been very poor defensively, especially away from home, where they are winless in their last six encounters, conceding 16 goals in that span.
Because of the World Cup 2022 qualifiers, Atlanta were missing Josef Martinez, Ronald Hernandez and Miles Robinson on Friday, but they got some production from an unlikely source as George Campbell scored his first career MLS goal off a nice short corner played by Marcelino Moreno, while Ezequiel Barco did the rest as his 38th-minute free-kick was deflected in by Daryl Dike, and he ended the night with a goal in the 72nd minute.
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan collected his sixth clean sheet of the year, while Matheus Rossetto had a spectacular game versus the Lions, completing 45 of 46 passes, and Brooks Lennon picked up his fifth assist of the season.
Santiago Sosa received another caution on Friday, so he will be suspended for this game, while Emerson Hyndman is gone for the year with a torn ACL and Franco Ibarra is not fully healed yet from his lower-body injury.
The Cincinnati midfield has been the most consistent part of their game all season, particularly Luciano Acosta, who is pulling most of the strings for the Orange-and-Blue, setting up the winning goal from Brenner in the first half last weekend, his eighth assist this year, putting him one back of Hany Mukhtar for second in the league.
Acosta can operate so effectively because of the hard work of Yuya Kubo, who leads the league in tackles won, while Przemyslaw Tyton replaced Kenneth Vermeer in goal against Toronto, saving all five of the shots that he faced for his first clean sheet since August 18.
Atlanta United possible starting lineup:
Guzan; Campbell, Franco, DeJohn; Adams, Rossetto, Mulraney, Torres; Lopez, Martinez, Barco
FC Cincinnati possible starting lineup:
Tyton; Hagglund, Cameron, Vallecilla, Castillo; Valot, Kubo; Barreal, Acosta, Cruz; Brenner
We say: Atlanta United 3-0 FC Cincinnati
Atlanta are starting to gel as a unit and should be getting some of their top attacking threats back for this critical match.
Cincy have struggled to compete versus even the half-decent sides in MLS, and their defending away from home has been shockingly bad of late.