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Columbus Crew SC have a difficult, fast challenge in Atlanta United

Crew SC will have to be smart and tireless to stop MLS’s best offense on Saturday.

MLS: Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

After a disappointing mid-week 1-0 loss to FC Cincinnati in the first edition of the “Hell is Real” derby, which led to a premature exit on the U.S. Open Cup, Columbus Crew SC switches the key to focus on Major League Soccer again.

And they should do it fast. Not only because their Saturday rivals Atlanta United have the most productive attack in the league so far with 28 goals scored, but also because speed is a word in high demand when talking about the expansion franchise.

When asked by reporters about what the biggest challenges of playing against Atlanta United were, head coach Gregg Berhalter did not hesitate.

“Transition, transition, transition...and (Miguel) Almirón dribbling. Fantastic dribbler,” he said. “The key is when they win the ball, they find him. He takes his pace in a controlled way and then he has four or five guys running with him. Because he's able to dribble in such high speed, it is fast, yet controlled, which is difficult to deal with.”

The Paraguayan Designated Player has indeed been the dynamo of Atlanta’s offense as his seven goals and four assists in 14 games make clear. The 23-year-old midfielder has the roles of leading the team in transition and feeding his fast attacking teammates, Hector Villalba, Yamil Asad and Josef Martínez, with accurate and timely placed through balls, which already broke a handful of opposition’s defensive systems this year.

“The challenges are getting them behind,” center-back Josh Williams said. “They’ve got a lot of pace and you want to keep them in front of you. Obviously you don't want to be trailing them at any point because probably you are not going to catch them.”

Martínez, especially, poses a real threat when getting the ball behind the defensive line. The 24-year-old Venezuelan was stellar in the first four games of the season, using his pace and smart moving to score five goals.

When he was sidelined because of a left quad injury, head coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino preferred to move Villalba, a natural winger, up front instead of starting Trinidad & Tobago’s international Kenwyne Jones to keep the team’s offensive speed intact.

The key to slow Atlanta’s pace down, according to Crew SC players, is approaching the game with the purpose of being a compact team, leaving no space for the rival’s front line to make their always dangerous runs.

To do this, it begins at the top.

“You don't want a player like Almirón getting the ball in dangerous spaces with a lot of space,” forward Ola Kamara commented. “Instead, if we are compact with our 11 players when he gets the ball, he'll have somebody on his path and will have to get the ball back and start over again.”

The task is obviously easier said than done, but is one that needs to be accomplished if the Black & Gold wants to remain above the playoff line — currently two points clear — and give its fans some reason to celebrate after recent frustrating defeats.

Defending United’s pacy attack will be literally a team effort, which will demand a huge amount of work from all 11 players on the field.

“It starts from Ola, from Adam, whoever is playing up top at the time. It starts from there and it works all the way back,” Williams stressed. “Jose Mourinho had an amazing quote on that recently when they (Manchester United) were playing Ajax, who has an unbelievable midfield, and he said that if those guys don't touch the ball they can't affect the game.

That's essentially what they wanted to do. The other team can outplay you, they can play better soccer, but if you are together as a unit, from the top to the back, it's going to be very hard to break you down. I feel that's what we need to be.”

The Crew SC defense faces this difficult challenge Saturday evening at 7 p.m. ET.