Columbus Crew SC hoped to make a statement and climb the standings with a win in Georgia, but Atlanta United continued their dominance over the Black & Gold with a 3-1 win. Gyasi Zardes’ goal wasn’t enough to counter goals from Josep Martinez, Héctor Villalba, and Miguel Almirón, while an uncalled handball turned the game in the second half.
With a short week and a game in Chicago on Thursday, Crew SC opted to make a few changes. Edward Opoku made his first start of the season on the wing while Hector Jimenez made a rare start at left back and Lalas Abubakar came back in at center back.
The game plan would be to play counter-attacking soccer, ceding possession to Atlanta and look to spring on the break. The game would be a stalemate through the first 20 minutes. Atlanta would have a significant advantage on the ball through, but wouldn’t create much danger. Crew SC struggled getting forward; creating only two shots.
The deadlock would break on an error at the back. During a rare stretch of Columbus possession, Jonathan Mensah underplayed a pass to Wil Trapp that was easily intercepted by Julian Gressel who played a ball to Martinez. He quickly dribbled at the scrambling back line and put the ball past Zack Steffen to give the home side the 1-0 lead in the 31st minute.
Atlanta pressed to double their lead in the remaining 15 minutes of the half, with Almiron nearly scoring in the 43rd minute with more direct pass and dribble attack that cut through the static back line. Steffen was able to parry the ball wide to snuff out the chance. Crew SC would close out the half without conceding.
To start the second half, Columbus would take some pressure to Atlanta. The effect paid off in two ways, the United attack struggled with the new, higher, defensive press and it kept Crew SC attackers in better position. The reward was a goal.
Abubakar would pick up the ball off a turnover and immediately play a ball forward to Jimenez. The quick centering pass found Wil Trapp. The midfielder split the defensive lines with a direct pass from midfield to Zardes at the top of the 18 yard box. With the Atlanta defense dropping, the striker took a touch and rifled in a long range shot that Brad Guzan was helpless to stop to tie the game in the 50th minute.
The goal opened up the game with both teams playing quickly through midfield, pushing towards goal. Crew SC wouldn’t turn their chances into shots and Atlanta would be content to take shots from distance, not troubling Steffen.
With the game tied going into the last 20 minutes, Crew SC made a shift bringing in Justin Meram and Patrick Mullins for Federico Higuain and Opoku. The subs were an effort to score a possible winner, but it would be Atlanta that would take advantage.
Atlanta would get the go ahead goal in controversial circumstances just minutes later. As Meram cut in on the right side, he drove in a cross into the box. The ball hit Jeff Larentowicz in the arm, stopping the momentum and creating a turnover. Referee Jair Marrufo demonstratively waved off the penalty shouts from Crew SC.
The long clearance was picked up by Hector Villalba as Jimenez overcommitted to intercept. He had a clear path into the Crew SC defense and dribbled past Abubakar and Mensah to give Atlanta the lead less than a minute after the denied handball call.
With the shock deficit, Columbus tried to grab a tying goal by pushing numbers forward. Instead, Atlanta’s lethal attack struck again to put the game out of reach. Villalba got the ball into the right channel and sent a quick cross into Martinez. He dropped a pass to Alimron. His long range shot under no pressure beat Steffen to make it 3-1 in the 82nd minute.
Handball and VAR
The handball non-call in the 75th minute didn’t go to video review. The ball appeared to strike and extended arm and appeared to be a prime candidate for review. The FIFA laws suggests and on-field video review of “handball considerations (position, intent etc.)”, but there apparently wasn’t a prompt to review. That falls to the video review official Jon Freemon. Freemon also declined to review the penalty awarded to Crew SC against Orlando on July 21st.
Gregg Berhalter has deployed the 4-4-2 recently to great effect over the past couple of weeks. New York Red Bulls and the Houston Dynamo struggled with the challenges it presents. The game in Atlanta showed it’s deficiencies. There were several individual errors on both 2nd half Atlanta goals, but the spacing of the 4-4-2 often leaves the middle and deep wide spaces exposed. United took advantage as Columbus pressed numbers forward and hit those spots ruthlessly.
With the loss, Crew SC moves to 11-8-6 on the year, staying at 39 points. They are six points ahead of Montreal and Philadelphia for the last playoff spots. NYCFC, in third, is eight points away. It’s a short week for Columbus. They face the struggling Chicago Fire on Thursday at 7pm, then have a week and a half off.