While Columbus Crew SC has already qualified for the knockout stage of the MLS is Back Tournament, the Black & Gold are faced with one more group stage matchup against Atlanta United. Barring a blowout loss and a big win from the New York Red Bulls or FC Cincinnati, the Crew is essentially assured of first place in Group E. Meanwhile, Atlanta needs a win, and potentially a big one, if the club hopes to qualify for the knockouts as a third-place team.
The Crew continues to fly high after a 2-0 win over the Red Bulls last week, while United sits on the verge of elimination after a 1-0 loss to Cincinnati. Head coach Frank de Boer will be without midfielder Jake Mulraney and former Crew forward JJ Williams after both were sent off in the previous match. While Atlanta has struggled so far in the tournament, the Five Stripes will be desperate for a win and could prove to be the toughest test yet for the Black & Gold.
Atlanta United at a glance:
League Form: L-L-W-W
Tournament Standing: Fourth place (0 points, -2 Goal Differential)
Leading Scorer: Ezequiel Barco, Emerson Hyndman (2)
Assist Leader: Pity Martinez (2)
Player to Watch: Pity Martinez
Normally this spot would be reserved for star forward Josef Martinez, but he is out due to injury. Considering Atlanta’s performance in the tournament so far, it was actually a bit of a struggle to determine who should take his place. We settled on former South American Footballer of the Year, Pity Martinez.
The attacking midfielder has been one of Atlanta’s few sources of offensive production during the tournament, with Martinez being the only player to record a shot on target, with three total. Recently, Martinez was deployed in a forward trio, playing off of the striker and another attacking midfielder, and played on both the right and left sides. While he did play over 170 minutes in the last two games, it seems unlikely that he will be rested with a place in the knockout stage on the line. The offense will run through Martinez and the Crew would do well to aggressively mark him.
How they play:
Atlanta plays very differently without Josef Martinez. With the absence of his talent and mentality, it is not as simple as replacing him in the lineup with another striker. The entire dynamic of the team changes. This was very evident against Cincinnati. While Atlanta played with only 10 men for most of the match, Cincinnati refused to push forward and instead parked the bus. Instead of then taking the game to Cincinnati and pushing forward, United chose to sit back and even cede possession. Considering Josef Martinez’s furious drive to win and score, it seems unlikely he would have let this happen if he had been on the field. This version of Atlanta simply does not have the goal-scoring ability or the mindset to take the game to its opponent and dominate.
On the other side of the field, de Boer’s system relies on the use of wingbacks. This means the team plays in what looks like either a 5-2-2-1 or a 3-4-2-1, depending on how far forward the wingbacks are asked to play. Either way, de Boer’s defensive system thus relies on three center backs, specifically Franco Escobar, Miles Robinson and Fernando Meza. In the last two games, Escobar and Robinson played a full 180 minutes and Meza played just over 170. De Boer has yet to rotate his central defense, meaning he will either continue to rely on these three and risk tired legs or put in second-string players that may be more prone to mistakes.
How the Crew win:
The Crew will likely be playing with a rotated lineup, having already qualified for the knockout stage and with key players potentially out injured. Still, the Black & Gold are more than capable of downing this Atlanta side. While Pity Martinez is capable of being an offensive threat, he can not possibly match the goal-scoring prowess of Josef Martinez on his own. Since he will then have to rely on playing off of the striker and another attacking midfielder, if the Crew keeps two players on Martinez, the team should be more than capable of shutting down him and the rest of Atlanta’s attack by closing down his outlets to other forward players.
Columbus also stands to benefit from United’s lack of defensive rotation. If de Boer trots out his normal starting trio from the last two games, the Black & Gold may be able to take advantage of tired legs and physical exhaustion. If de Boer instead rotates and puts in bench players that may not normally start, they may make mistakes that the Crew can pounce on. Either way, this is not ideal for Atlanta.
Regardless of potential rotations and injuries, if the Black & Gold remain disciplined and focuses on suffocating United’s attack, the Crew will be more than capable of creating the chances needed to secure a win and a perfect group stage performance.