Columbus Crew SC has an opportunity on Saturday night. While the MLS Cup playoffs are probably a pipe dream at this point, the Black & Gold can, at the least, play spoiler to other teams in the league.
Saturday’s match will see the Crew travel to Atlanta United to take on the defending MLS Cup champions. The Five Stripes, who currently sit in third place in the Eastern Conference, still have a shot at the top spot in the conference but points are at a premium as we near the season’s conclusion.
To learn a little more about Atlanta, we turned to Sydney Hunte of SB Nation’s Dirty South Soccer.
Questions for Dirty South Soccer
Massive Report: It was, by Atlanta’s standards, a difficult start to the season with no wins in the first four games. Things obviously improved and United is now six points off the top spot in the East. What caused the turn around for the Five Stripes?
Dirty South Soccer: It’s funny, because the change Atlanta made to its formation from a 3-4-3 to a 3-5-2 may have been made out of necessity following the season-ending injury of Brek Shea. Frank de Boer took that opportunity to make the change to a three-man backline anchored by Franco Escobar, Miles Robinson and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, putting Julian Gressel at his preferred position on the right wing and Justin Meram, who Columbus fans know all about, on the left. After that, we started to see the “old” Atlanta United come into shape; Gressel has been able to use his pace to get the ball up the field on the wings while adding a tough, hard-nosed approach to the game, while Meram has fit de Boer’s system like a glove and was a key lever pulled by the front office.
Along with that, you’ve seen Pity Martinez slowly begin to get more comfortable with his role with the team, Ezequiel Barco (despite batting some niggling injuries; he won’t play on Saturday) contribute at a strong level, Darlington Nagbe proving himself to be one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the league and Eric Remedi taking over for veteran Jeff Larentowicz as that solid presence at defensive midfield. Defensively, I’ve loved watching Miles Robinson quickly become one of MLS’ elite center backs; he was rewarded with his first two USMNT camps over the international break and looked good in limited action. He’s that steady hand in the defense as compared to a pair of players in Escobar and Gonzalez Pirez that, while talented, have mercurial natures that often get the better of them.
All that to say, the struggling, identity-lacking group we saw at the start of the season seems like ages ago. They still need to pull things together as far as away form is concerned (especially if they end up with a playoff game away from home - although the loss at Philadelphia before the break may have been due more to tired legs more than anything else), but they’re certainly playing their best soccer right now.
MR: Frank de Boer had a tough job coming in and replacing Tata Martino after the success of the first two years. Obviously fans were unhappy with him early in the year. How are the feelings toward Atlanta’s coach now and do the supporters believe he can lead this team to back-to-back MLS Cup titles?
DSS: I think things have cooled down considerably as compared to that slow start for Atlanta - certainly, winning helps a lot! In reality, I didn’t think de Boer was ever in serious danger of getting fired before the season was up (as some fans were calling for), as I figured it would take time for him to settle in and learn about the team’s tendencies, as well as getting some key players healthy. That being said, I don’t think he did himself any favors by tinkering with the team’s tactical approach as much as he did when he first started with the club; to be fair, though, there was always going to be a period of adjustment on both the part of the coach and his players.
As for winning back-to-back MLS Cups, there’s certainly the belief that Atlanta could do it; even more so if it is able to get itself into a position to get that top seed in the Eastern Conference. If it can (or, at the very least, get one or two home playoff matches), it can really take comfort in the fact that its form at home is so strong. If that holds true, things right now look to point to another MLS Cup in its own building unless LAFC comes out of the West. I think this club would relish another shot at Bob Bradley, Carlos Vela and the men in black at Banc of California Stadium with a trophy on the line.
MR: This is a simple question with I imagine a more complicated answer: what makes Josef Martinez so good? Follow up, when teams have slowed him down, how have they done it?
DSS: I’ll start by saying this: Josef thrives in an attack-based system. Part of what hamstrung Atlanta early in the season was de Boer’s attempt to utilize a more possession-based tactical style that didn’t fit the skill set of the players he had on the roster; to that end, Josef and the cast around him were unable to really do what they do best. Once that 3-5-2 came into play, we began to see the Josef Martinez we’re used to seeing.
In my opinion, teams that have been able to keep Josef off the scoreboard are teams that are able to keep him marked in the box and cut off passing lanes both from the wings and through the middle. He has an aerial ability that far outweighs his 5’7” stature; I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen him score goals by practically leaping out of the stadium and heading a ball in when it’s fed to him in the box through the air. He also has such timing to break past a team’s line of defense; one well-placed ball can see him off to the races. I know I’ve enjoyed watching him play in Atlanta’s colors, and I’m sure it’s even fun for neutrals to see him do what he does week in and week out.
To see Massive Report’s answers to Dirty South Soccer’s questions, check out their Three Questions story.