With the 2017 Major League Soccer regular season now in the books, we turn our attention to this year’s MLS Cup playoffs.
Unlike last season, Columbus Crew SC take part in the postseason, after finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference with 16 wins — tied for second most in the league — and 54 points.
Due to not winning on Decision Day against New York City FC, the Black & Gold must play in the knockout round of the MLS Cup playoffs, meaning a one-game, winner-take-all matchup with Atlanta United at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium where more than 70,000 fans are expected for the expansion side’s first foray into the postseason.
What we know is that the Five Stripes defeated Columbus in both regular season meetings this year. What we don’t know is how that will translate to the playoffs, where Crew SC enters on a 10-match unbeaten run and Atlanta hasn’t tasted victory in four games.
Questions for Dirty South Soccer
Massive Report: Four matches without a win to end the season for United, including a home loss to Minnesota United. Is this a sign of slumping at the wrong time for the Five Stripes or do you consider it more of a blip on the radar.
Dirty South Soccer: I think it’s the latter. I almost tend to discount away results in the MLS regular season simply because of the sheer amount of parity that comes with it. A 0-0 draw in New England isn’t a bad outcome by any means, Atlanta lost to Minnesota but with half of our usual starting XI due to a combination of injuries, players on international breaks, and Tata Martino resting players after a stretch of 8 matches in 23 days. A 0-0 draw at NYRB again is a solid result and a 2-2 tie at home against the best regular season side in MLS history is certainly respectable.
I could make the case that Atlanta outplayed both NYRB and Toronto, but that’s playing devil’s advocate. It would’ve been nice to win one, but alas. I think Atlanta’s fine though.
MR: Miguel Almiron appeared to be a key cog for Atlanta all season, but missed four of the last five games to end the year and played just 29 minutes in the finale against Toronto FC due to injury. Where does his health stand heading into this knockout game? Is an 80 percent Almiron, for example's sake, still one of the best players in MLS?
DSS: The 29 minutes against Toronto seemed to be a tune-up for Almiron, just to get his feet used to the water again. It’s tough to tell exactly how fit he is after only seeing him come off the bench last match, but I would be shocked if he didn’t start tonight. Almiron’s impact on the club, even at 80%, is still imperative. The moment he came on against Toronto, all the players on the pitch seemed to perk up and grow in confidence when he had the ball at his feet. Something special can happen at any point that Almiron’s charging toward goal with Josef Martinez, Tito Villalba, and Yamil Asad there trailing him.
MR: This is the first playoff game for many of these players. I assume some of them didn't even know about a confusing MLS Cup playoffs. Do you expect that to have any impact on this match?
DSS: I don’t think so. Throughout the season they’ve had to adjust to the random quirks of playing in MLS. What’s one more monkey wrench?
In all seriousness, they’re probably excited at the idea that even though they didn’t finish at the top of the table, Atlanta can still win the league. What’s most concerning for me is the timing of the start of the playoffs compared to the end of the regular season. A three-day layoff is something Atlanta and many other MLS clubs are used to, but to think that the league goes from a semi-important regular season match to the most important match in the club’s short history at an incredibly quick pace makes me think it could be an interesting adjustment in perception for Atlanta players that aren’t used to this. That was an underrated factor in why I felt Atlanta could really benefit from a first-round bye, just to give themselves more time to get their minds right.
This could all just be me overthinking things, which is probably the case as usual.
To read Massive Report’s responses to Dirty South Soccer’s questions check out their Three Questions piece.