Teams work all year to position themselves for an MLS playoff berth. After 34 games Columbus Crew SC sits in fifth in the Eastern Conference and earned itself an opening-round knockout game on the road at Atlanta United.
It was one of the worst potential tactical matchups for the Black & Gold, and it only gets trickier in light of the fact that this is it — you win or you go home.
The option for a draw isn’t there in the one-game knockout round. Columbus will have to find a way to prevail against the Five Stripes, or there will be no more soccer for Crew SC in 2017.
Making things worse is the fact that Decision Day results put CCSC on the road, a place where it’s very difficult to win in MLS (and in the MLS Cup Playoffs).
The match will take place at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday at 7 p.m. EST and will be televised on ESPN2.
Here’s a breakdown of some things to keep an eye on in the game...
At a glance
A squad hit hard by injuries has limped into the playoffs a bit, but has done enough to earn a home game. The last two games saw draws against playoff teams, New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC, including a 2-2 draw against Supporter’s shield winner TFC at home. A loss at home to Minnesota is a noticeable blemish, but is also the club’s only loss in its last 11 games.
Goal leader: Josef Martinez 19, Hector Villalba 13
Assist leader: Yamil Assad 11
Series history: Atlanta leads 2-0-0, picking up 3-0 (June 17) and 2-0 (July 1) and wins this season
Do some research
We’ve covered Crew SC and Atlanta before, so rather than rehash a lot of stuff, here’s an archive of the coverage from this season, including my previous preview analysis of the matchup.
- Here is: the original ATLU preview. There may be minor changes through the season, but the bulk of this breakdown still holds.
- Here is: the preview of the second matchup.
- Here is: a recap of the first contest, a 3-1 win for the Five Stripes down south.
- Here is: a recap of the second meeting, a 2-0 victory for Atlanta in Columbus.
What to know
While Tata Martino has made adjustments throughout the season, his general approach and squad selection has remained largely the same. This is especially true with linchpin Miguel Almiron healthy enough to play again. He returned for 30 minutes off the bench on the weekend — does that mean he’ll be extra fresh or that he’ll still be figuring out his fitness and form?
It’s worth remembering that even if ATLU has maintained only mediocre form in the season’s final stretch, it has also been without Almiron, among a number of absences.
We know that Atlanta will be without first-choice left back Greg Garza, who seems to be done for the season with an injury.
Former Crew SC defender and Atlanta captain Michael Parkhurst is a question mark for this game after leaving with some sort of leg injury in the regular-season finale. If he were to be forced to sit, it would leave the Five Stripes without two of it’s preferred back-line setup, though Leandro Gonzalez Pirez will be back after missing a game due to suspension.
LGP is where things often start for ATLU, with the center back very comfortable with the ball at his feet and often willing to range around the field. His 11.8 touch percentage is 12th among all starters in the league and the highest among defenders.
If Parkhurst doesn’t play, a likely back line appears to be, from left to right, Anton Walkes, LGP, Jeff Larentowicz and Tyrone Mears.
But this team is all about the attack, which features weapons everywhere. Yamil Asad is tied for third in MLS with 11 assists, Josef Martinez is fourth in MLS in goals (19) and leads all league starters in expected goals per 96 minutes (0.75) and Hector Villalba has 13 goals and nine assists (though both numbers are outpacing his expected rate by a noticeable margin).
Atlanta pulled off a 2-2 draw at home against the Supporter’s Shield winner TFC. There’s not much to take from the game, though, as Martino went with an experimental lineup that took a 3-3-3-1 formation we seem unlikely to see in this playoff game.
Despite the result, expected goals indicates ATLU firmly outplayed Toronto, which plays out in most of the statistical numbers outside of the final score.
Almiron returned, which was almost more important than the result. What he did in 30 minutes was pretty good.
Four ball recoveries, a key pass and his typical transitional spark. You expect when he gets his legs under him he connects on another couple of those final-third passes. Extract this out to 90 minutes, and there’s reason for Columbus to be concerned.
- Don’t be $%@*%!@ stupid — Why is this such a dangerous tactical clash for Crew SC? Because the Black & Gold have traditionally struggled against high pressure and when they get beaten, it’s typically because of a momentary gaffe. Those moments are when Atlanta is at its best, decisively crushing opponents who give them a sliver of daylight to transition and attack.
Let’s look at all the goals the Five Stripes have scored on (read: victimized) Columbus:
1. A square pass by Columbus’ back line is turned over when Asad pressures. Villalba scores.
2. Turnover in attack for Columbus, LGP quickly gets the ball to Almiron who does the rest..
3. Mohammed Abu falls asleep and has the ball picked off him in Crew SC’s third, one pass to Martinez and it’s a goal.
4. A long ball forward is misplayed by Jonathan Mensah and Villalba was in alone. Goal.
5. Columbus doesn’t get the ball out, allows a cross that it clears poorly and a ball back in gets to Villalba. Goal.
Four of those goals are essentially the same: poor awareness or simple mistakes allow ATLU to run at goal, just like it wants.
And that doesn’t include all the transition opportunities that Atlanta didn’t capitalize. Like this one:
Avoid those giveaways and always be aware of the impending transition.
Now that you’ve relived those nightmares...
- Score the first goal — This is always helpful. Especially helpful when it, A) Will help CCSC keep its defensive shape, rather than chasing the game and getting stretched and, B) Will help cool off a crowd of 70,000 fans. Well, maybe that second part will work.
- Keep moving in the attacking third — Atlanta wants to be proactive, from back to front. With a potential makeshift back line, force that unit to make decisions. For all the talent LGP has, moving quickly can suck him out and create lanes for Ola Kamara to make his runs. And even if Parkhurst plays, he’s still at the tail end of his career and potentially nursing a knock. United is here because of its offense, not its defense.