There were two obstacles Columbus Crew SC faced traveling to Bobby Dodd Stadium to face Atlanta United: the home side’s high press and its transition play. Both things killed the Black & Gold in a 3-1 loss on Saturday evening.
In a match that was delayed nearly a half an hour due to weather, Crew SC were the brighter side to begin the game.
Just two minutes in, former Columbus defender Michael Parkhurst played a poor pass out of the back straight to Black & Gold winger Justin Meram. He attacked the backline, eventually spraying the ball wide for forward Ola Kamara. The pass was just a bit ahead of the striker and the chance was for naught.
Three minutes later and again Crew SC had a great chance to open the scoring. Again it was Meram playing creator, slotting a through ball for fellow winger Ethan Finlay. The slumping midfielder put a good shot on target, but was denied by an onrushing Alec Kann.
Following those two opportunities, Atlanta began to settle into the game, creating a number of chances. Finally in the 16th minute, the press resulted in a turnover, which turned into the open goal.
A simple square pass from fullback Jukka Raitala to to center back Josh Williams appeared fine until the quick pressure came from midfielder Yamil Asad, who took the ball from the defender and found forward Héctor Villalba. It was a calm, cool finish from the 22 year old forward that put United in front.
Crew SC responded 10 minutes later when Harrison Afful delivered a dangerous cross into the penalty area. Kamara battled with Parkhurst, touching the ball back to Federico Higuain, who bypassed his defender and tucked in the equalizer.
It was a strong start to the second half from the Five Stripes that paid off with the go ahead goal in the 67th minute.
The finish started with second half Columbus substitute Niko Hansen dribbling up the right side, but losing the ball to Leandro González Pirez. The defender played a quick pass to playmaker Miguel Almirón who picked up the ball at midfield and was unchallenged until his tough shot that beat goalkeeper Zack Steffen for the 2-1 lead.
Both teams created some chances, but neither could find the back of the net. That is until the the 88th when Atlanta’s pressure again forced a mistake that led to a goal.
This time it was Afful, who played a ball to Mohammed Abu with his back to goal. As the midfielder tried to turn, he was blindsided by Kevin Kratz. It was a simple pass to second half substitute Josef Martínez who still had a lot to do.
Martínez managed to roof his shot near post to seal the victory and send Crew SC back to Columbus with nothing.
Lost it early
The Crew SC players and staff have discussed numerous times over the last few years how important the opening goal is. Head coach Gregg Berhalter said the team would have to sustain the first 15 minutes of this match.
Within the first five, the Black & Gold had great opportunities to take the lead. Instead, a poor pass from Meram and a missed shot from Finlay saw Columbus come away with nothing before United opened the scoring.
If the team is up one or two early, that changes the whole match. Atlanta likely has to open up even more and we could be talking about a different result.
Not taking advantage
Aside from the missed chances, Crew SC did not jump on the team closest to them in the goals conceded department. Somehow, the second-worst defense in MLS contained the Black & Gold attack enough to allow just one goal.
On the flip side, the worst defense in the league continued to be susceptible despite knowing exactly what United’s strengths were. They are strengths for a reason, but both are things this team has struggled with for year.
Berhalter has been questioned for changes in the past and this is another opportunity.
In the 77th minutes, Berhalter took off midfielder Artur — arguably the team’s best player in this match — and Higuain, who didn’t have the best game but is always a danger to spring something.
To be fair, both of these players played 90 minutes on turf on Wednesday night, but neither, especially Artur, seemed to be tiring. With no game for a week, it seems like these two could have been asked to do a bit more.
Where they stand
With the first half of the season in the books, Crew SC sits at 7-9-1 on the year. After a 3-1-1 start to the season, Columbus has gone 4-8-0 over these last 12 games, including losing four of its last five matches.
The Black & Gold now have two consecutive matches at home — first against the Montreal Impact and then this same Atlanta side -- and must take advantage. Two wins at home could turn things around to start the second half of the year. Slip ups in either of those matches could spell some serious trouble for Crew SC over the final 17 games, eight of which are on the road.