The road to MLS Cup for Columbus Crew starts in Atlanta. It’s a winner take all game in one of the most hostile atmospheres in MLS. The Black & Gold will have to win facing off against one of the most dynamic offenses in front of over 70,000 fans. It’s the kind of challenge that forges champions.
Tonight is the culmination of a season’s worth of work for the Black & Gold. A team that was a work in progress after the nadir of 2016 evolved over the course of the season to form one of the hottest teams as the playoffs start. Jonathan Mensah appears to have figured out MLS. The addition of Pedro Santos and Kekuta Manneh has sharpened the attack. Federico Higuain has certainly emphatically declared he’s not done yet.
The 2017 season hangs on a trip to the new darlings of MLS. Atlanta has taken to soccer and the Five Stripes have coalesced into one of the stronger teams this season. Their home field advantage is formidable and their ownership has invested heavily in star players. Miguel Almirón is a top class playmaker surrounded by offensive talent. Veterans like Michael Parkhurst and Jeff Larentowicz provide a solid core.
The MLS Original vs. MLS 3.0 storylines may write themselves and the off the field news may loom large, but the Crew have a chance to give diehard fans one more opportunity to watch a game at MAPFRE this season.
Keys to the match:
Weather the storm: This is the playoff opener for Atlanta and the stadium will be filled to capacity. 70,000 fans in an enclosed space will be loud and unlike the atmosphere that some of these players have faced. Even with significant international experience, Crew SC will have to outlast the engaged crowd. A early Crew goal would do wonders too.
Defense in transition: Atlanta loves to get into the open field and break at pace. It’s unclear if Almirón will line up, but the Five Stripes are still have plenty of weapons even if he doesn’t play. Those weapons work best when they have the defense off balance and moving back to goal. This puts a lot of pressure on Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams to communicate effectively, but success will be measured if the midfield and attack can stanch the transition before it begins.
Split seams: Yes, Atlanta can attack, but their defense is vulnerable too. Success for the Crew may depend on how well players like Justin Meram, Pedro Santos, and Ola Kamara are able to find the gaps in their defense. That means finding the seams between the defense as they press up. The Crew are good at moving on the break and they need to look to do that at every opportunity.
How to Watch:
Date/Time: Thursday Oct. 26th, 7:00 p.m. ET
Venue: Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Atlanta, Georgia)
Watch: UniMas, ESPN2
Listen: CD102.5 FM (English Broadcast) La Mega 103.1 FM (Spanish)