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Massive Scouting Report: Atlanta United

The Crew has another tough road trip, going to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Nashville SC Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

After a memorable weather delay and forgetful match last Saturday against LAFC, the Columbus Crew is set to take to the road to face Eastern Conference foes Atlanta United. This Saturday’s contest is an important match for both sides, as each looks to return to winning ways. The Crew has just one win in the team’s last nine matches, while Atlanta has just one victory in the Five Stripes’ last seven matches.

The two sides seem fairly even on paper, sitting three points apart in the standings, and will have this game earmarked as a chance to jumpstart their 2022 campaigns. Here’s what you can look for Saturday as the Black & Gold visit Atlanta.

Atlanta United at a Glance:

Record: 4-4-4, 16 points

League Form: D-D-L-W-L

Leading Scorer: Ronaldo Cisneros (4)

Assist Leader: Marcelino Morno (3)

Player to Watch: Thiago Almada

The Crew has had a tough stretch of matches featuring some of the league's best. New York City FC’s Valentin Castellanos and LAFC’s Carlos Vela are now followed by Atlanta superstar Thiago Almada. How good is Almada? Atlanta paid a league-record $16 million to secure his services for the 2022 campaign. The 21-year-old Argentine has wasted no time since entering MLS with four goals and three assists in just 12 matches.

Almada excels when receiving the ball under pressure and has the ability to shift past any defender. In attacking transition, Almada is able to use his dribbling ability and pace to quickly threaten his opponent's goal. Almada is also very refined in the final third. Able to be both a provider and a finisher, it’s no surprise that Almada has already provided ample production for Atlanta in 2022.

The midfielder has scored in his last two matches for United and will look to make it three in a row on Saturday. The Black & Gold backline won’t get much of a break in this game and will need to be much more aware of Almada than they were of Castellanos and Vela if Columbus wants to take three points from this match.

How Atlanta United plays:

In his first full year in charge, Atlanta boss Gonzalo Pineda hasn’t changed much from the system that led his side to the MLS Cup playoffs last year. Despite an up-and-down start to the year, Atlanta’s well-defined style of play should help the team continue to be a playoff team in the East.

Usually employing a 4-2-3-1 formation, United relies heavily on maintaining possession to control the tempo of the game. Typically, Atlanta looks to move the outside backs high up the field when in possession. In doing so, the Five Stripes are able to move their dangerous attacking players like Almada and Luis Araujo into advanced central areas. Almada and Araujo look to get on the ball and either drive at the defense or pass the ball to their advanced outside backs to switch the point of attack.

This movement and shape makes United very hard to defend and win the ball from. If the Five Stripes win the ball near midfield, they will look to counter attack as quickly as possible and let players like Araujo, Almada and Josef Martinez (when healthy) run into the space being the backline.

Defensively, expect Atlanta to use a similar defensive strategy to most of Columbus’ opponents, defending in a mid-block to allow the team to be compact and limit the Crew’s ability to have space between lines to progress the ball forward. United will have some sort of trigger to initiate a press to try and win the ball back. A common way this is done in MLS, and one the Black & Gold have seen a lot, is when there is a pass backward from an outside back or center back. When done correctly, it usually forces an aerial ball to be played allowing Atlanta a much higher chance of winning the ball back.

How the Crew can win:

Columbus head coach Caleb Porter’s seat is getting a bit warmer. While it’s unlikely that he’s relieved of his duties anytime soon, a much-needed win on the road could help cool his seat down a bit.

The Crew hasn’t scored in the team’s last two matches. Scoring goals usually helps win matches, so it’s a good place to start. More specifically, the Black & Gold can attack much quicker than in recent matches. The speed of Columbus’ attack is among the lowest in the league, making the team easy to defend. The Crew certainly prefers to play a slower, more possession-based style, but when there’s little change of pace or urgency, that style quickly becomes methodical and predictable.

If the Black & Gold can inject some speed at times into their attack, whether it be via counter attacks or long balls in behind, it could actually help them be more effective when in possession, as well as threaten their opponent’s goal. Look for Columbus to attack a bit quicker on Saturday in an attempt to jumpstart their attack.

Defensively, the Crew needs to limit the space for Almada and Araujo to play. Almada and Arajuo are far and away the most dangerous attacking options for Atlanta and thrive when able to find the ball in pockets of space. More specifically, they’re incredibly dangerous when they receive the ball in the space behind their opponent’s midfielders, and in front of their opponent's backline.

Atlanta’s whole tactical setup is designed to create space between these lines for these players. Thus, the Black & Gold will need to do a good job of limiting this space and quickly closing down the space when they do receive the ball in these areas. If Columbus is able to successfully limit the availability of this space, the team will be much harder to beat on Saturday.