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Massive Scouting Report: Atlanta United

Columbus welcome the Five Stripes to town for the first time since their memorable clash in October.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at New York City FC Chris Bergmann-USA TODAY Sports

The light at the end of the tunnel is emerging if you are Columbus Crew SC. A busy stretch of games will conclude Wednesday evening when the Black & Gold welcome Atlanta United to MAPFRE Stadium. Crew SC began this busy stretch fighting hard to get a valuable point against Trillium Cup rival Toronto FC.

The Black & Gold moved on to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, where in traditional fashion, they were bounced out of the tournament by rivals Chicago Fire after a lengthy penalty kick shootout. Crew SC set its sights back on MLS league play welcoming the New York Red Bulls to the capital city on Saturday afternoon. The Black & Gold jumped out to an early lead, but couldn’t maintain its advantage over a hungry Red Bull team in the second half, settling for the draw.

The stretch closes out with Atlanta coming to town and perhaps at a good time if you are a Black & Gold supporter. Key injuries to midfielder Miguel Almiron, defender Greg Garza and Midfielder Hector Villalba could play a factor in Wednesday’s match. Columbus must remain guarded in hopes of claiming a victory against the Eastern Conference leaders.

Atlanta at a glance:

Form: L-D-W-D

Leading scorer: Josef Martínez (13)

Assists leader: Miguel Almiron (6)

Josef and the Five Stripes

One thing makes itself abundantly clear when watching Atlanta matches is how this offense is exciting to watch and can score in bunches. The pair of Josef Martinez and Almiron might be the best young pairing in Major League Soccer. Add youngsters like Ezequiel Barco and Julian Gressel to the mix and Five Stripes fans have a reason to be excited.

It isn’t all fun and games if you are a United fan. An aging defense and a lack of consistency from players like Brad Guzan and former Crew SC captain Michael Parkhurst have plagued this defense at some inopportune times.

Withstanding the flurry of pressure from Martinez and the Atlanta midfield will prove critical in this match. It wouldn’t be surprising for Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter opting to play some balls long down the field to allow the wingers and Gyasi Zardes to challenge this inconsistent United defense and force them into mistakes.

Welcome back Cristian

After serving his two-game suspension for an inexplicable slap to the face of Sporting Kansas City’s Seth Sinovic, the Panamanian winger returns to action on Wednesday night against Atlanta. Martinez put together a strong performance in the Open Cup and looked poised to make some key contributions to the Black & Gold lineup upon his return. How he conducts himself in a high-stakes match like this may dictate how much we see of the youngster going forward.

How Crew SC win

Zack Steffen couldn’t pick a better time to return to Crew SC. The young goalkeeper possesses an incredible ability to halt a productive United offense and could serve as a catalyst for the Black & Gold defense in this one. Bear in mind, the goalkeeper brings his personal shutout streak into this match (five matches) and looks to keep that going against the Five Stripes.

The Crew SC offense could be very competitive in this one. The Atlanta backline leaves a lot to be desired. Guzan is inconsistent and Parkhurst struggles to keep up with speedy wingers. Add to the equation a key injury to Garza and the Black & Gold could surprise the Five Stripes and head into the World Cup break with three points.

Columbus need to remain disciplined on defense and not lose its shape. United prefer to move the ball around quickly and create space. If you leave a tiny window of opportunity for the Five Stripes, they will punish you. Crew SC needs to shake off the mental cobwebs that plagued them against the Red Bulls and look more like the team that fought valiantly against Toronto. Should Columbus recapture that magic, there isn’t any reason why the Black & Gold won’t head into the World Cup break feeling great about their playoff aspirations this season.