The defending MLS Cup and recently crowned U.S. Open Cup champions, Atlanta United will host Columbus Crew SC on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. United is 10-1-3 and this season at home and currently sit in third place in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta will be pushing hard for all three points in the standings, as a first-place finish in the conference will receive an opening-round bye. To have any hope of propelling to the top of the conference, United will need to win each of its remaining games.
Due to the international break, both Columbus and Atlanta come into the match after an extended recess. Atlanta is 3-1-1 versus the Crew in MLS regular season play and will be looking to bounce back after a massive defeat to the Philadelphia Union on Aug 31.
Atlanta United at a glance
Form: W-W-W-W-L (15-10-3, 48 points, 3rd in Eastern Conference)
Leading scorer: Josef Martinez (Forward): 23 goals
Assist leader: Julian Gressel (Midfielder): 9 assists
Atlanta United FC Expected Starting XI
How Atlanta United Play
The old cliché “patience is a virtue” rang true earlier this season, when Atlanta United fans clamored for newly-appointed head coach Frank de Boer to be ousted. The former Dutch international had big shoes to fill after replacing the departed Tata Martino. De Boer had the thankless task of replacing the man who won the league crown.
Three games into the 2019 season, Atlanta had yet to tally a mark in the win column. De Boer sought to implement the prototypical Dutch style of soccer, placing heavy emphasis on possession and being attack oriented. Defensively, the Dutch are patient and wait to press until an opposing player becomes isolated with the ball. The philosophy was similar to Martino, though the method of operation varied considerably.
In implementing his classic possession-oriented system, de Boer’s squad struggled to score and turn out positive results. The Five Stripes only garnered one win out of the team’s first six matches. Though, that was followed by a five-game winning streak where Atlanta outscored its opponents 9-0. That’s right, United went five straight matches without yielding a goal. The tides turned on the field and the knee-jerk reactionary fan base quieted down. The transition took time, but the team found its groove in recent months.
Atlanta has mostly prevailed using a flexible formation, ascending to third place in the East. United initiates games often in a 3-5-2 setup and it morphs into a 5-3-2 defensively and into a 3-3-4/3-4-3 in the attacking third. The team has slowly but surely turned into a well-oiled machine after soaking in de Boer’s tactics.
Who should Crew fans look out for?
Now in his third MLS season, Josef Martinez is the most lethal forward in the league today. He has found the back of the net in 13 consecutive matches, which is a league record. Offseason acquisition Pity Martinez had his ups and downs this season, though he has settled into an integral role in the attack as of late. Former Crew star Justin Meram has been a big boost for United on the left side of the pitch since he was acquired in May. American winger Julian Gressel brings a perfect mix of skill and work rate on the field and he leads the team in assists. Perhaps the most undervalued player on the pitch for Atlanta is Darlington Nagbe. The roaming midfielder was once a catalyst for Crew coach Caleb Porter in Portland and has now become an unheralded piece of the midfield for Atlanta.
The backline has consisted of a healthy rotation of Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Michael Parkhurst, Jeff Larentowicz, Florentin Pogba (the brother of THAT Pogba) and recent U.S. National Team call-up Miles Robinson. The 22-year-old Robinson has been exceptional and may garner MLS Defender of the Year consideration at the season’s end. Veteran goalkeeper Brad Guzan is a mere two clean sheets away from taking hold of the MLS single-season shutout record.
How the Crew Win
Remember the last time these two clubs met? Perhaps it should have been named “The Monsoon at MAPFRE,” as the field was giant soccer pool. Playing in such weather isn’t necessarily advantageous to any team, though I do think it helped to stifle the pacey Atlanta attack, allowing the Crew to pull out a 2-0 victory. This match, however, will be played in the cozy confines of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. For Columbus to steal a positive result and play spoiler to United’s quest for first place, the in-season acquisitions of Luis Diaz, Youness Mokhtar, Romario Williams and Eloy Room need to keep making positive impacts for the squad.
As tumultuous as this campaign has been, two of former Black & Gold coach Gregg Berhalter’s attacking holdovers have brought moments of greatness to this new-look Crew squad. Pedro Santos has been a star and the most consistent attacking option for Columbus. Forward, Gyasi Zardes has had his streaks of goal-scoring prowess. If the Black & Gold are going to stand any chance of pulling out a positive result in Atlanta, it will be due to one or both of those players breaking through.
While the playoffs are all but an impossibility at this point, Columbus fans want to see Porter’s team focus on 2020. It is quite simple, the players dawning the black and gold the rest of the way need to show they can contribute, which will put them in prime position to be pillars of the club moving forward. A road result is not out of the realm of possibility this weekend, even against such a formidable foe.