In front of the biggest club game crowd since the COVID-19 pandemic began over a year ago, Columbus held up under the pressure and came out with a big 1-0 win against Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Captain Jonathan Mensah scored the only goal of the match from a second half corner kick, his first MLS goal since July 2018.
The Crew is now unbeaten in six games and has lost just once in the team’s last 10. Meanwhile, Atlanta extends its winless streak to 10. The win moves Black & Gold to third in the Eastern Conference standings, pending other results this weekend, with 24 points..
Columbus came out ready to entertain. A sharp start was something head coach Caleb Porter emphasized as the key to getting wins in this tough stretch, but with a unique 4-4-2 lineup, this game was bound interesting. Midfielder Marlon Hairston and winger Alexandru Matan caught the ends of two great chances early but each was well-defended by United. The hosts responded but were less dangerous in the final third.
The Crew seemed to become unsure as the massive crowd spurred on Atlanta in their chances and the Black & Gold found themselves stuck in United’s half for a long stretch at periods in the first half.
In the 16th minute, forward Erik Hurtado picked up a through ball from fellow striker Bradley Wright-Phillips and broke away down the pitch going one-on-one with Atlanta goalkeeper Alec Kann. It was the Crew’s best chance of the game by far but the striker sent the ball wide.
United nearly got the first goal of the game in the 36th minute when forward Erik Lopez broke away after a defensive miscommunication and forced goalkeeper Eloy Room off his line. Room was able to knock the ball away and from there it was easily cleared by left back Pedro Santos. That chance was far too close to putting the home side up headed into the locker room.
Room was called into action again in the 42nd minute, saving a rocket from Lopez, but it was again cleared out by the Crew backline. The Black & Gold got one more chance of their own just before the halftime whistle blew. Santos volleyed a ball from deep in the corner to Hairston, who one-touched the attempt over the net.
Halftime came with a 0-0 scoreline, a trend Porter has been wanting to break but has been a struggle for his varying offenses.
Coming out of the locker room saw playmaker Lucas Zelarayan and winger Derick Etienne Jr. come into the game for Hurtado and Matan, respectively.
While Atlanta wasn’t dangerous on the end of the team’s chances to start the first half, United got far more of them than the Black & Gold in the second 45 minutes. Atlanta’s first dangerous opportunity came in the 58th minute and was once again saved by Room. Midfielder Marcelino Moreno sent a shot in bending with pace. The Columbus goalkeeper shuffled and caught just enough of the ball with his left hand to send it wide at full extension, his fifth save of the game to that point.
Perhaps the least likely player to put one away for the Black & Gold did just that in the 65th minute. Mensah came down at the far post on a corner kick to pick up a ball flicked back from the head of Hairston. Mensah’s height left Atlanta hopeless as he headed the ball right over the defender and the goalkeeper to put the Black & Gold up 1-0.
The Crew settled into a defensive posture for the rest of the half. Atlanta knocked on the door with the massive crowd of fans spurring the team on, but the Crew backline was able to hold on for their sixth win of the season.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium is never an easy place to play, but Saturday took the intensity to another level. With an attendance of over 67,000 people, it was the biggest crowd for a club game in the world since the beginning of the pandemic over a year ago. Not only that, but it was Josef Martinez’s first start since May 29, and the crowd wanted the storybook return for the forward with a win and a goal from the striker himself. Porter has said he would always take his team in big games, and Columbus proved him right on Saturday.
A win is a win, and to do so in Atlanta at the end of a stretch of three-in-eight days, down eight players is nothing to take for granted. However, the only goal was scored off a set piece and by a center back.
The Crew’s offense was not all that dangerous Saturday afternoon and definitely not what Porter has been looking for. His emphasis as of late has been sharpness, especially early in matches. Though the Black & Gold did score first, it wasn’t until the 65th minute and it was only the first goal thanks to five huge saves from Room.
Regardless, Columbus has the best points per game average in the Eastern Conference over the past nine games heading into Saturday’s battle and was able to top it off with three more.
The Crew finally get a breather after playing three games in eight days, with the next game not until Friday, July 30, when the team travels to New York City FC for the two teams' third meeting of the season. The first two went to the Crew 2-1. The kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. ET.