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Atlanta United vs. Columbus Crew, MLS Cup Playoffs: What to watch for

No home and home this week

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United will look to continue to add to its history in the club’s inaugural season as the Five Stripes take on the Columbus Crew Thursday night. Atlanta comes into the game having thrived during an onslaught of games in September only to run out of steam in the last four matches. In that time Atlanta United needed to win just one of the last four games and they would have had a bye this week. Unfortunately, they earned just two points out of a possible 12 and prepare for their first playoff game on short rest.

As for the Columbus Crew, the team had something of an uneven season. They’ve struggled defensively and didn’t find their attacking rhythm until well after the start of the season. They finished in 5th place with only four wins and nine losses on the road this year. Sensing the need to find a spark in attack, they added winger Pedro Santos who seems to have added nothing more than pushing Kekuta Manneh to the bench. Furthermore, their struggles on the road this year will put them at a further disadvantage in the knockout round where the away goals rule is not in effect, and Atlanta will have the benefit of not having to travel after playing on Sunday.

Atlanta won both of the matches between these teams in the regular season. The first match perhaps showed how valuable the home field advantage at Bobby Dodd Stadium was. The Crew scored first, Atlanta played much of the first half on their heels, but the Five Stripes came back for a 3-1 win. In the re-match in Columbus, United had a dominant defensive performance with Tito Villalba providing both of the goals. Columbus will want to show they can win and perhaps will be more motivated to have a chance to play at home again this year in the next playoff round after the news they may be relocating to Austin, Texas broke last week.

Anyway, here’s what to watch for...

The Atlanta attack vs. Zack Steffen

Columbus comes into the playoffs with the most goals allowed of any Eastern Conference playoff team with 49. Part of the reason for that is the play of Zack Steffen. The young goalkeeper is in his first season as a starter in MLS and has faced some growing pains this year. In his team’s last match, it seemed like the gravity of the game may have gotten to him. He flubbed a shot from David Villa that put NYCFC ahead 2-1. He redeemed himself somewhat by saving a penalty to keep the score even at 2 in stoppage time, however. Though they would tie the game, a win would have put the Crew in second place in the East.

The pressure will be back on Steffen as Atlanta United opens the upper level of Mercedes Benz Stadium and as many as 70,000 fans will be in his ear all game long. The atmosphere will be rowdy and the young keeper will have to be at his best and most focused to get Columbus a win.

Will Atlanta still have success in transition against the Crew?

In the games these teams played during the regular season, the Crew could not deal with the Atlanta transition. The goal in Atlanta that put United ahead of Columbus was a signature play for the Five Stripes. It started with a turn over in the Atlanta defensive third was gathered and sent to Miguel Almiron who ran 60 yards with the ball at his feet and put United up 2-1. The Crew didn’t fare much better against United in Ohio with Tito Villalba running past their entire defense to gather a long ball to open the scoring in the game.

These examples neatly show the weakness of the Crew this year: they aren’t that cohesive defensively and teams have been able to find space behind their backline to give them problems. Atlanta should be able to exploit this weakness again on Thursday night. Tito Villalba will continue to be their worst nightmare on the right wing with Miguel Almiron keeping the attack moving on the left, and Josef Martinez trying to round the keeper for 90 minutes.

Teams that have given Atlanta difficulty this year have tried to stay back, be compact, draw red cards against goal keepers, catch the Five Stripes losing focus, or have pressed Atlanta effectively to breakup attacks and put the team on their heels defensively. The Crew don’t really have the defenders to play that style, they don’t press relentlessly, the team should be pretty focused, and the Peachtree Press has been effective in the past. So unless the Crew have figured something out against Atlanta, the Five Stripes should be able to get a good result in the match.

Depth could be a key factor late in the game

There’s no way around it, Atlanta United has been suffering from injuries as of late. Miguel Almiron came back in the same game that Michael Parkhurst had to leave early in. It is undetermined if Greg Garza will be back for the match and Brandon Vazquez looks to be out as well. The missing players mean that Atlanta might be at a disadvantage if the game goes into extra time.

Comparing the benches of the two teams, Atlanta could be calling on presumptive rookie of the year Julian Gressel with Jacob Peterson and Kevin Kratz also being players Tata Martino has looked to as difference makers late in games. It may even be possible that Andrew Carleton could be available for the match if Martino doesn’t believe he needs rest after coming back from the U-17 World Cup.

For the Crew, they have Adam Jahn, who they use to be tall and stand in the box late in games and Kekuta Manneh, a speedy winger who seems poised for bigger things. Columbus seems to lack many solid defensive options off of the bench, so if Atlanta needs a late goal, that could work in their favor.

In the end, this is the playoffs, this is soccer, and it’s MLS. Anything can happen. Atlanta has shown that they are the better team, but the Crew can also score a lot of goals, so it could be a wild night Thursday in the Benz.