On Saturday, the Columbus Crew plays the team’s final match before a two-week international break on the road against against Atlanta United. It’s been a difficult road for the Black & Gold, averaging 1.08 points per match through the first 12 games of the 2022 season and enters the match against Atlanta on a two-game losing streak. Fortunately for head coach Caleb Porter and the Crew, this is not the same United of years past.
Like Columbus, the Five Stripes have struggled some this year, going 4-4-4 in the opening 16 games of the season. Injuries have played a part, but this group doesn’t look like the team that was dominated MLS a few short years ago.
Massive Report: So far this season, Atlanta and Columbus are both in a similar spot in the table and not close to where the teams want to be. Who is Atlanta United in 2022 and what should Crew supporters expect?
DSS: Atlanta United has been beset by injuries that I’m sure Columbus supporters are aware of due to the high-profile nature of season ending injuries to Miles Robinson, Brad Guzan and Ozzie Alonso (among others). The club is fortunate that they have players in reserve who are more than capable of stepping in and playing to the level of MLS-replacement or better. But there is a lack of cohesion among the back line that leaves the team vulnerable. Specifically, defending simple crosses and set pieces has been a huge issue, and I’m sure Columbus will be looking to attack that weakness specifically just as teams like Nashville and New England have in recent games.
The attack is a totally different story, where the team started the season missing pieces, but have been getting healthier and more potent game by game. Thiago Almada is proving — in my eyes — to be one of the most dangerous players in the league. He, Marcelino Moreno and Luiz Araujo are still figuring out how to get the best out of each other, but it is improving game by game. Gonzalo Pineda is leaning on the attack to help outscore opponents with such a beleaguered defense.
MR: Entering the season, Thiago Almada was the big move for Atlanta and he’s delivered with three goals and two assists just a third of the way through the season. What does he bring to Atlanta that was missing last year?
DSS: Alamada is a dream player. The first touch and dribbling ability is exceptional. His willingness to either fend off challenges or release the ball before getting fouled allows the attack to flow (the opposite of Ezequiel Barco, who was very willing to let the ref stop the game if he got kicked). He can shoot from distance. He presses well and reads the game well to recover the ball. But his best attribute is his vision. His ability to see passes allows for his teammates to make interesting and effectives runs in behind, knowing that a player like Almada can actually connect with them. That leads to more runs, which allows Atlanta to truly apply pressure in the final third and sustain it for long periods.
MR: For all of the adjustments Atlanta has had to make this season, one thing the Five Stripes haven’t done is lose at home. The offense has been a big piece of that with only one home match without a goal scored. What should the Black & Gold supporters expect from United’s offense and who is someone that’s going to surprise Columbus?
JP: They haven’t lost at home, but I’d also say that they’ve dropped points in games they really should have won at MBS as well. That said, they seem to be adapting well to the large pitch and are having much more success generating chances at home in recent games. On top of the players I’ve already mentioned, Ronaldo Cisneros at striker has proven to be a hugely effective player in Josef Martinez’s absence regardless of stats. He is a humble and hardworking player that will always provide Atlanta with valuable pressures to help regain possession. He’s a fst sprinter and can exploit space in behind if Columbus pushes too high up. But potentially the biggest surprise could be an appearance by Josef Martinez, which would be his first in a couple of months after he had another knee surgery to clean up the joint. He rejoined full team training sessions this week, and seems better than 50-50 to occupy a spot on the bench. And if he’s on the bench, it’s hard to see him not making an appearance for at least the final 10 minutes.