When Atlanta United is mentioned in any conversation, it’s usually because of the team’s impressive firepower, provided by the likes of Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba.
Columbus Crew SC’s rivals in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs are rightfully praised as one of the most dangerous offenses in MLS, but, as any other team, they also have their weak spots.
In the case of Tata Martino’s team, the path for a Crew SC win on Thursday could be close to the sidelines. With center back Anton Walkes and defensive midfielder Chris McCann playing as converted fullbacks for the Five Stripes, the Black & Gold could potentially explore this area of the field to surprise United.
On the right side, Atlanta signed 2016 MLS Cup winner Tyrone Mears from the Seattle Sounders, but the 34-year-old veteran lost his starting spot to Walkes — a 20-year-old product from the English Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur academy — as the season progressed.
On the left, U.S. Men’s National Team regular Greg Garza was the incumbent until he suffered a left hamstring injury in late September. McCann, a 30-year-old Irish defensive midfielder signed from England’s Wigan Athletic, has filled the role is his absence.
“Walkes has come and done a great job,” Crew SC’s head coach Gregg Berhalter noted. “He’s established himself as a solid starter. And on the left, I think they are going to miss Greg Garza a little bit, but McCann has done well filling in on his position. They have other guys as well who can pitch in. We’ll game plan accordingly but I think they have a good group.”
Despite Berhalter’s analysis, Crew SC can definitely take advantage of the fact that Walkes and McCann are playing out of their natural positions. With talented players on the wings like Justin Meram and Pedro Santos (and Kekuta Manneh coming off the bench), the Black & Gold can push Atlanta from the sides and explore these apparently favorable matchups.
It also helps that neither Michael Parkhurst, who will be a game-time decision for United, nor Leandro Gonzalez Pirez are quick center backs, meaning Meram and Santos can have good space to operate if they beat their defenders off the dribble.
Another way to make Atlanta pay for their converted fullbacks is trying to explore some potential bad positioning decisions they can make during the match.
That’s exactly what Orlando City did 40 days ago, when the team walked away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a 3-3 tie after forwards Dom Dwyer and Cyle Larin took advantage of Walkes’ and McCann’s flaws to score on headers.
Atlanta is obviously a very good team, but it is not unbeatable, as Minnesota United recently showed. It is up to the Crew to play smart soccer and take advantage of the situations the match presents.