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Massive Scouting Report: Atlanta United

A look at Sunday’s visitors to Lower.com Field.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at FC Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew returns to action this Sunday when the club welcomes Atlanta United to Lower.com Field. The Black & Gold enter this match after a draw last week on the road to the Colorado Rapids. Atlanta, meanwhile, suffered a midweek loss to the New York Red Bulls at home.

This is a big match for each side in the crowded Eastern Conference standings. Both teams are hoping to take another step toward an MLS Cup playoff spot in this game. Here’s what you can expect on Sunday.

Atlanta United at a Glance:

Record: 7-8-10, 29 points

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

Leading Scorer: Ronaldo Cisneros (7)

Assist Leader: Thiago Almada(5)

Player to Watch: Thiago Almada

United paid a league-record $16 million to secure Almada’s services prior to this year. The 21-year-old Argentine midfielder has wasted no time since entering MLS with four goals and five assists in 22 matches for Atlanta this season.

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 the opponent’s goal. He is also very refined in the final third, able to be both a provider and a finisher. Because of this, it’s no surprise that Almada has already provided ample production for the Five Stripes in 2022.

The Columbus backline will need to be aware of Almada throughout this match on Sunday in order to take all three points.

How Atlanta United plays:

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

Usually employing a 4-2-3-1 formation, the Five Stripes rely 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, United is able to move its dangerous attacking players like Almada and Luis Araujo into advanced central areas. Almada and Araujo then 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 make United very hard to defend and win the ball from. If Atlanta wins the ball near midfield, the team looks to counter attack as quickly as possible and let players like Araujo, Almada and Josef Martinez (when healthy) run into the space being thr opponent’s backline.

Defensively, the Five Stripes are likely to use a similar defensive strategy to most of Columbus’ opponents and defend in a mid-block. This allows Atlanta to be compact and limit the Crew’s ability to have space between lines to progress the ball forward. United then will have some sort of trigger to initiate a press to try and win the ball back.

A common trigger in the MLS, and one the Black & Gold have seen frequently, is when there is a pass backward from an outside back or center back. When done correctly, this usually forces an aerial ball to be played, allowing the Five Stripes a much higher chance of winning the ball back.

How the Crew can win:

This is an important match for Columbus as the team looks to continue to climb the table in the East and take points from those below in the standings. In addition, home matches are a vital source of points for the Crew in the home stretch of the season. Here are a few things to look for as the Black & Gold hopes to take three points from this matchup.

First and foremost, the Crew needs to do a good job dictating the tempo of this match. Atlanta is a team with plenty of talented attacking players who excel when they have space. Thus, United try and play fast, free-flowing soccer with open pace. This doesn’t really suit the Black & Gold’s strengths.

Columbus can combat this by controlling possession of the ball, counter pressing when losing the ball and being diligent in the team’s defensive efforts to keep the Five Stripes from breaking out in attacking transition. When Atlanta does have sustained possession, the Crew needs to work very hard to slow the visiting side down and keep a compact defensive shape to limit the attacking space for United’s attacking players.

In addition to controlling the flow, the Black & Gold will benefit if they are able to keep the Five Stripes pinned in their defensive third. Atlanta does not necessarily want to defend and certainly does not want to defend for large portions of the match. If Columbus is able to keep possession, then win possession back quickly in their attacking half, it will make Atlanta’s defense very uncomfortable. In doing so, it will also limit and frustrate the attacking players that United relies on in attack.