Columbus Crew SC has reached the final game of the MLS is Back group stage, facing Atlanta United on Tuesday night. So far, it’s been a great start to the tournament for the Black & Gold, who are yet to drop a point or give up a goal in the first two games.
The opponent in this match is Eastern Conference rivals Atlanta United. While the Five Stripes have been one of Major League Soccer’s best teams since entering the league in 2017, it has been a rough tournament for Atlanta. United lost each of its first two games 1-0 to the New York Red Bulls and FC Cincinnati and now will require a win against the Crew to get through to the Round of 16.
Questions for Dirty South Soccer
Massive Report: When I think about Atlanta United, the first player that comes to mind is Josef Martinez. Obviously he was lost in the first game of the year with the knee injury. What kind of impact has not having arguably MLS’s best striker made on this team in these last three games? What’s the answer until Martinez is healthy again?
Dirty South Soccer: That’s what Atlanta United has to figure out, I think. I’ll get into it a little later, but the biggest question surrounding this club right now is regarding who will score goals with Martinez out: its been held off the scoresheet for 3 straight matches spanning the first two games of this tournament and including its CCL match against Club America. For a club like Atlanta, that’s unheard of, especially considering how it came out the gates in 2017 and 2018. As far as the answer until Martinez is healthy, you’d like your DPs to carry the scoring load, but so far that hasn’t happened. The club did sign Manuel Castro to a loan deal in the offseason and he came close — twice — to opening his account against Red Bulls last week. That being said, he’s not a striker.
The short answer to your question is that Josef’s injury has had a major impact on Atlanta’s progress, and until he returns, I don’t know who you can point to that can be that go-to person in his absence, both emotionally and tactically.
MR: Aside from missing Martinez, what has been the biggest issue for Atlanta in your mind in the first two games of the MLS is Back Tournament?
DSS: Creativity. This was a team that thrived on a high-tempo, energetic attack over its first 2 years here. Under Frank de Boer, it’s morphed into a more possession-based, deliberate group that, to be frank (no pun intended), is missing the bite that it had during its first 2 seasons. Pity Martinez, who the club signed with heightened expectations, hasn’t come close to the level everyone thought he was capable of outside of a few spurts here and there (not the level you’d expect for a $15 million purchase), while Ezequiel Barco hasn’t really realized his own potential. I think looking at how those 2 have performed thus far as compared to Lucas Zelarayan has been a bit frustrating for fans especially since the latter was inked for far less money - albeit a club record for Columbus.
I think the over-arching issue, though, that has upset fans has been the failure by the front office to identify a true backup striker. That’s no disrespect to Adam Jahn, who is probably the closest thing the club has to a backup No. 9, but with Martinez’s injury, JJ Williams was brought in from the USL as an emergency option. I’ll get into both of those players a little later, but the feeling is that with the extensive scouting network Atlanta United had built up, especially in South America, it should have been able to add more firepower to mitigate Josef’s absence. The same could be said for a Darlington Nagbe replacement: sure, the club signed Matheus Rossetto from Athletico Paranaese in Brazil, but a) I’m not sure he’s a true Nagbe replacement and b) he didn’t start against FC Cincinnati. That, along with some other puzzling lineup decisions (George Bello, for one, didn’t play against Cincinnati after a nice showing against the Red Bulls; going with a false 9 against Red Bulls as opposed to having an out-and-out striker - i.e. Jahn - up top from the beginning) has Atlanta in hot water.
MR: United have two former Crew strikers in Adam Jahn and JJ Williams, as well as former Crew Academy player Tyler Wolff. How are the two front men fitting so far and what do you see as their roles with the team going forward? What are the expectations for Wolff, who is obviously a young prospect with a bright future?
DSS: Williams’ primary mark on this team has been a straight red card picked up for kicking out at Kendall Waston during the loss to Cincinnati on Thursday - I understand the signing but he’s not going to make a serious impact in my opinion. For Jahn, he came off the bench in the first match (nearly scoring a late equalizer off a header) and started against FC Cincinnati, but (as mentioned earlier) the big thing for this side is that the attack hasn’t able to consistently create anything. Now, to be fair to Jahn and Williams, they were never going to come close to matching what Josef Martinez has done, but so far the impact (more so for Jahn than for Williams) hasn’t been felt at all.
Tyler Wolff’s signing to a homegrown deal came a little as a surprise to me: I joke that it’s the first win Atlanta United has picked up against Austin FC before his dad Josh’s side has even played a match. But he started in the season opener for Atlanta’s reserve team in the USL Championship against the Charleston Battery before the pandemic forced everyone to hit pause. My thought is that ATL UTD 2 will be where he spends the bulk of his time this year, but the fact that he has travelled to Florida to be acclimated with the first team during the tournament, after having trained with them in the preseason, tells you how highly they rate him.
To read Massive Report’s answers to Dirty South Soccer, click here.