Major League Soccer’s regular season is complete. Unlike last year, Columbus Crew SC is in the playoffs after finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference.
The reward, a trip to Atlanta United to play in front of a hostile crowd of 70,000-plus fans at the Mercedes Benz Stadium in a one-game knockout round match.
Some good news for Crew SC is this is a very confident team right now. The Black & Gold ended the regular season on a 10-match unbeaten run and the players believe they can play with anyone in MLS right now.
That theory will be put to the test quickly against an Atlanta side that defeated Columbus in both meetings this year.
The Five Stripes aren’t on the best form heading into the playoffs, going winless in the team’s last four matches. The catalyst for the attacking play, Miguel Almiron, was sidelined with an injury during much of that slump, but returned to come off the bench in the final match.
One thing to note, former Crew SC defender Michael Parkhurt will be a game-time decision for United, as he is dealing with a knee issue.
Can the Black & Gold go on the road and live to fight another day in this postseason? Let’s see what our staff thinks on this one.
I don’t like this game for Crew SC. There I said it. I’ve said for weeks, maybe months, that Atlanta United was the worst possible matchup for the Black & Gold and the team needed to avoid the Five Stripes at all cost to be successful in the playoffs.
And here we are. Game one and it’s Atlanta Columbus faces.
All hope is not lost though. Crew SC did show some positive signs in those two meetings during the regular season. Josh Williams mistake at the back turned the tide in the first, and Ethan Finlay’s misses compounded the issues.
If the Black & Gold can play a clean game, the team will have a chance. There is much more experience when it comes to MLS playoffs for Columbus, but talent could trump all and that’s what I’m afraid of for Crew SC.
Atlanta United 3 Columbus Crew SC 2
In the last weeks of the regular season, I was adamant that playing Atlanta United on the road was the worst possible scenario for Crew SC in the playoffs. I was possibly wrong about it. Despite not having the home field advantage, the Black & Gold have the better momentum, being undefeated for the last 10 matches while Atlanta failed to record a win in four games.
Atlanta is still a very dangerous team and a bad matchup for Crew SC, but the absence of Greg Garza and the fact that Miguel Almirón not at 100 percent narrows the gap considerably. If the Black & Gold have a good start, they can turn the support of 70,000-plus fans at the Mercedes Benz Stadium into pressure over a very young Atlanta team that could even miss its captain, center back Michael Parkhurst, who will be a game-time decision because of a twisted knee.
With all that said, I'll bet on a tie in regular time and extra time and a Crew SC win on penalty kicks.
Columbus Crew SC 1 Atlanta United 1
I don't feel good about this match up at all. This is the one match up I wanted to avoid, and yet here we are.
Atlanta United have been impressive at home as they've broke their own attendance record in a matter of weeks. I think Mercedes Benz Stadium will be rocking Wednesday night and not only will the team on the pitch be good but the fans will be ravenous.
For Columbus to be successful, they will have to block out the noise of a raucous crowd. They need to be clean and concise with their passing and look to pull apart the Atlanta defense and get into the wider channels.
Unfortunately, I'm not liking Columbus' chances in this match, but it would be sweet for an MLS 1.0 team to defeat an MLS 3.0 team.
Especially because it would set the league on fire.
Atlanta United 3 Columbus Crew SC 1
On a 10-match unbeaten streak, Crew SC travel to what I think is the worst possible matchup for the Black & Gold: Atlanta United.
This season, Columbus lost both matches to Atlanta by a combined score of 5-1. The Five Stripes thrive on their aggressive high-press, which gave Crew SC fits during both matches. To win, and get a much-coveted home playoff game, the Black and Gold must take care of the ball when playing out of the back or be prepared to play the ball out of danger.
The 4-2-3-1 was unsuccessful during the first two matches with Atlanta, but I would expect Columbus to stay with that formation because it's kept them unbeaten in 10 straight. One massive benefit that Crew SC have is the lack of playoff experience with Atlanta's attacking front. The Five Stripes are also not healthy (Miguel Almiron is just returning from an injury and Michael Parkhurst is a game-time decision), and have not won in four matches. If the Black & Gold can lean on their experience and learn from their mistakes and put pressure on a young Atlanta squad, Columbus may just move on to the next round.
Columbus Crew SC 2 Atlanta United FC 1 (Extra time)
Thirty four games..... and here we are. The Decision Day scenarios did not play in Columbus Crew SC’s favor like they did in 2015. Instead, they are left with probably the toughest path to MLS Cup. The path itself actually may not be that bad, but the first hurdle places Crew SC against the only team they have not beaten this year in newcomers Atlanta United.
Crew SC is has gone 9-3-4 since the last meeting with Atlanta and are on a 10-match unbeaten streak. The team is probably in its best form all year. Can they pull off a surprise and beat Atlanta on the road? Yes. Will the recent antics of owner Anthony Precourt and MLS have an impact on the team’s performance? Possibly.
Atlanta is a HOT team though.
Sadly, I feel like this may be the end of the 2017 season for this team. I hope I’m wrong though.
Atlanta United 3 Columbus Crew SC 1
There are two teams that give Crew SC consistent trouble, Toronto FC — they give everybody trouble — and Atlanta United.
Atlanta can crush teams with their deadly counterattack. They exploit defenses that are open at the back and leave space. The Columbus defense has been open in the past as Gregg Berhalter pushed players forward, but that’s changed. Berhalter now shields the backline better as the wing backs aren’t as forward. Wil Trapp has improved as well, either with Artur or Mohammed Abu playing beside him.
The offense can test any defense. Ola Kamara will get his chances, Justin Meram and Pedro Santos are excellent in tight spaces and Federico Higuain is in the form of his career right now. The Atlanta defense can be beaten and this is the (ahem) crew that can do it.
This sets up Crew SC to manage the game against a dangerous opponent in an unfriendly environment much better than the past. Does that mean a win? It’s still going to be a big challenge, but the game will be tight.
Atlanta United 2 Columbus Crew SC 1 (Extra time)
All you have to do is make the playoffs and anything can happen, right? This is the sort of hope the MLS playoffs breed, and it's mostly true. But even with that in mind, it's hard to feel overwhelmingly positive about this knockout-round game for Columbus.
This was probably the worst tactical matchup Crew SC could have gotten (although I'd rather face Atlanta than Toronto FC). What does CCSC have going for it? A strong run of form down the stretch and a basically healthy lineup. Federico Higuain is playing as well as he has all season, the backline has been just slightly less error prone during the last month and Pedro Santos adds an element that wasn't in place during the two regular-season meetings with ATLU.
Reasons I'm not so bullish on this game? A larger sample size shows Columbus hasn't played well on the road (can we trust this is truly out of the team's system?), Miguel Almiron is back for Atlanta and this might be the loudest building Crew SC has ever played in. It's not that I don't believe the Black & Gold can pull this out, it's just that I'm not sure it's particularly likely. I'll keep my fingers crossed, but...
Atlanta United 2 Columbus Crew SC 1
It’s not super optimistic in Massive Report land. Do you have a more positive outlook on this Crew SC playoff game? Let us know in the comment section below.