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Your Tuesday (Playoff) Kickoff: Can Atlanta, Nashville keep their seasons alive? | MLSSoccer.com

Your Tuesday (Playoff) Kickoff: Can Atlanta, Nashville keep their seasons alive? | MLSSoccer.com

Two more Match 2s

Atlanta United host Columbus tonight at 7 pm ET. Nashville face Orlando City at 9 pm ET. Both home teams need a win to stay alive. Both games can be found on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.

RSL hold on

Real Salt Lake kept their playoff hopes alive with a penalty shootout win over Houston. The decisive Match 3 will take place Saturday at 6 pm ET.

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What happened?: Justen Glad’s return to the lineup didn’t quite go as hoped. Glad clattered Franco Escobar in the box midway through the first half to send Houston’s penalty specialist Amine Bassi to the spot. Zac MacMath saved the initial attempt, but Bassi sent the rebound into the back of the net to give Houston an early lead, one they would preserve until Jefferson Savarino sent a thumping free-kick whizzing into the goal to tie things up with 20 minutes remaining. Both defenses held strong from there and we went to penalties.

Bassi, who converted all six of his penalty attempts on the season, took Houston’s first attempt. MacMath took the bold step of doing absolutely nothing and handed Bassi his second miss of the night and the season when Bassi went straight down the middle. This time there were no rebounds. RSL converted all five of their attempts to stay alive and set up a winner-take-all Game 3 in Houston.

So, did we learn anything?: RSL got their backs pushed up against the wall, but a moment of magic from Savarino saved the day. It was well earned. Take out two consecutive high-probability chances on the first Bassi penalty and RSL allowed just 0.2 xG on the night. Houston seemed content to ride it out after going up 1-0 and generally limited the quality of RSL’s opportunities, but RSL eventually found their breakthrough and got the job done under pressure. Even if it took some help from Houston failing to capitalize on a couple of RSL mistakes. They’ll need a similar performance on Saturday. Or at least something much, much better than the last trip to Houston. They were overrun in Game 1.

The Dynamo could have killed this thing off. They didn’t. And now they’re heading back to Houston with their season on the line instead of preparing to host SKC. We’ll see if a lack of a killer instinct comes back to bite them.

Atlanta United and Nashville both need wins tonight. Home-field advantage is always the biggest reason to have belief in an MLS team, but I know Atlanta and Nashville fans would appreciate a little more reassurance than that, especially after being outplayed in Game 1 by teams that have been better for the majority of the season. Even tonight, in their own stadiums, both teams are underdogs. Here’s what they need to do to stay alive.

Atlanta United need a makeup game from Thiago Almada

There’s no getting around it. Thiago Almada made one of the single worst decisions of the MLS season when he committed an off-ball foul on Decision Day to earn a second yellow and a suspension for Match 1 against Columbus. There’s no guarantee Atlanta United would have won in Columbus with him on the pitch, but the Five Stripes would have at least had a chance to hold their own. They looked overwhelmed last week.

Understandably so. Columbus are playing as well as anyone has this season. Atlanta United will inevitably be scrambling on defense a few times tonight. But Almada’s return should give them the ability to throw a counterpunch or two they didn’t have. That’s in part because Atlanta’s attack runs through Almada. Per ASA, he had the third-highest percentage of his team’s touches in the middle and attacking third this season, right behind Héctor Herrera and Riqui Puig and just ahead of Carles Gil and Bebelo Reynoso.

The other major key here, though, is his return will allow Atlanta to return to a more familiar 4-2-3-1. The major advantage there isn’t necessarily tactical. It’s more about having the ability to get their best players on the field. You could argue they should have done that against the Crew last week, but they won’t have to tinker to find ways to make up for Almada’s absence in this one.

It should be open, it should be back and forth and it could be one of the most entertaining matches of the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs so far. If Atlanta can hold serve with the Crew and find a way to get the breaks and big chances to tilt their way, they have a shot at sending this back to Columbus. Then again, the Crew have outplayed Atlanta in all three meetings this year. They did earn a draw in one of those, though. It came at home. And it’s the only time Almada has faced Columbus this season.

Nashville need literally anyone to score

What else is there to say at this point? If you’re counting, we’re at five shutouts in six games. It’s not like they’re all that due either. They’ve only created more than 1.0 xG worth of chances in two of those games. To lay out the last six games: 0.4 xG vs. Seattle, 0.4 xG vs. Orlando City, 0.4 xG at Philadelphia, 3.4 (!) xG vs. New England, 0.5 xG vs. RBNY, 1.2 xG vs. Orlando City. I bet you can guess which one of those games they actually scored in. 

It’s been a bit disastrous the last few weeks. They weren’t terrible against Orlando last week, but they were playing from behind for the majority of the game. They simply haven’t been good enough in attack. It’s pretty black and white at this point: They either get it together and find the net or they go home. Whether that’s a moment of individual magic or a well-earned team goal doesn’t matter now. It’s not a good place to be. Maybe fight or flight kicks in tonight and a little pressure pushes them forward.

Good luck out there. Know where they’re going to go before they do.

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