Atlanta United’s expansion season went better than many could have hoped for. Sure, they spent big and sure, they brought in some talented pieces, but clobbering competition with a vicious attack en route to a playoff home game? That’s success.
Still, that doesn’t mean Atlanta should be content with where they are, especially with a desperate and motivated Columbus Crew team coming to town to open the postseason.
The Crew’s season will now almost certainly be defined by the off-the-field rumblings that have emerged in recent weeks, but a deep postseason run could ease some of the frustrations caused by ownership. They certainly have the talent and experience to do so, as the core of Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain and Justin Meram returns for another chance at an MLS Cup push after falling short in 2015.
To get there, though, they’ll have to go through the Atlanta juggernaut, a team that’s swashbuckling attacking style was one of the league’s brightest stories. With players like Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron spearheading the attack, Atlanta could be one of the league’s most dangerous teams as they look to embark on the team’s first postseason run.
Here’s a closer look at Thursday’s match:
Atlanta United toppled the Crew, 3-1, at Bobby Dodd Stadium back in June and then racked up a 2-0 win a month later at MAPFRE Stadium to complete the regular season sweep.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
ATLANTA UNITED: Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez get a bulk of the attention, and rightfully so, but Hector Villalba is equally as quick and dangerous. In the two games against the Crew this season, Villalba had three goals, making him one to watch on Thursday.
CREW: Wil Trapp remains the Crew’s most importnat piece, even if he’s somewhat hidden when things are going correctly. Against a team like Atlanta United that loves to get numbers forward quickly, Trapp will be vital in preventing the Atlanta attack while also kickstarting the Crew’s very own counters going the other way.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
JONATHAN MENSAH and JOSH WILLIAMS vs. JOSEF MARTINEZ. The Crew backline has been a weakness throughout much of the year, but things have settled down in recent weeks with Williams in the lineup. Mensah has proven error-prone, though, which is a major concern heading into a match with the league’s most punishing attack. Martinez can annihilate even a flawless defense, meaning the Crew will have to be as close to perfect as possible to keep him at least somewhat quiet.
ATLANTA UNITED: The Atlanta defense is battered due to injuries to Michael Parkhurst and Greg Garza. With Garza certainly out and Parkhurst likely to join him, veteran Jeff Larentowicz will need to step up and provide a big performance with leadership out of the back.
CREW: The big added variable for the Crew is Pedro Santos, who wasn’t around for the two losses earlier this season. There’s no doubt the Portuguese star has talent and if he can help spur on the Crew attack, there should be chances for goals on Thursday.
At the end of the day, Thursday’s match sees two high-powered attacks square off, and it may come down to which defense can stay the strongest.
The thing with Atlanta United is that you know exactly what they’re going to do, but you still have to stop it. They’re going to come out aggressive, work to force mistakes and then push forward with speed the second they get the ball. It leaves them open, sure, but thus far, they’ve been very good at forcing those dangerous sequences and finishing them over and over again.
Now, that thought process will certainly remain the same, but the defensive injuries will no doubt play a part. There’s no way Atlanta will be as confident if Parkhurst can’t go while the loss of Garza is also a major issue. They’ll still push, but it remains to be seen just how hard they’ll be able to push against a Crew team capable of hitting them on the break as well.
For the Crew, the key is making sure the attack clicks. Federico Higuain will play playmaker, but Pedro Santos and Justin Meram have to be involved in making plays in the attack Wil Trapp faces a tough matchup behind them, but the Crew need to try and play the game on their terms while limiting turnovers in the center of the field.
Given history, its a match Atlanta will surely be favored in, especially on home soil but, with their veteran leadership and a talented attack of their own to rely on, the Crew can certainly cause an upset if they keep things calm against a tough playoff newcomer.