Atlanta United’s inaugural season will be on the line Thursday night at 7 p.m. EST as they face the Columbus Crew at what is expected to be a packed-out Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Here’s what to expect and some things to watch for on the tactical front.
Expect Miguel Almiron to return to the Starting XI
Atlanta United manager Tata Martino told reporters after the team’s match Sunday against Toronto FC that the plan all along in that game was to get Miguel Almiron involved for about 30 minutes of that match to help get him up to speed ASAP. His presence will obviously be a major boost for the Five Stripes -- if merely from a familiarity standpoint. But Miguel Almiron gives Atlanta a different element in attack. He is able to turn nothing into something. His ability to recover a bouncing ball and just carry it right into a danger area is something Atlanta has been missing for some time. He did it within a few minutes of coming into the game Sunday vs. Toronto.
Not only can Almiron create moments of magic, but he’s instrumental to getting the most out of the Venezuelan Sensation (just made that up) Josef Martinez. Almiron’s ability to carry the ball from midfield — or even in Atlanta’s own defensive third — all the way to the attacking third creates a link between Josef and the rest of the team. Josef is at his best when he doesn’t need to get involved in the build up, and can terrorize center backs with his penetrating runs through the middle of the pitch. Expect to see more of this Thursday night.
Meram and Kamara’s direct running
The reason this game against Columbus is so dangerous is twofold. The first is the Crew’s general run of form down the stretch — the team is unbeaten in its previous ten matches coming into the game. The other reason is that Columbus Crew have players with the physicality and pace in the attack that can turn a game on its head. Ola Kamara is a center forward not unlike Josef Martinez in that he is going to sit on the offside line looking to run onto balls in behind. If the game turns into one of Atlanta dominating possession and pushing the line high up field, it will only give the Norwegian-born forward more space to work. He had three or four good scoring chances against Atalnta in the teams’ first match-up at Bobby Dodd Stadium in June. While Atlanta came away with a 3-1 win, that score was flattering to say the least. Watch Kamara’s run here. Remind you of anyone?
Justin Meram is similar in his physicality and size. He has better feet than Kamara and is capable making powerful, quick runs both with and without the ball. His size also makes him a threat on set pieces and crosses. And while Atlanta will have its hands full keeping an eye on the activity of this duo, Atlanta defenders will also have to deal with Federico Higuain. Higuain is an old head, but he’s clever, he will spot the “eye of the storm,” if you will, and spot areas that have been neglected by Atlanta midfielders to receive the ball and spot a pass or a shot on goal.
Carlos Carmona’s ball recoveries
As he has been all season, Carlos Carmona will be vitally important to Atlanta’s ability to control the game and push Columbus deep. This will be a key for Atlanta, because with Columbus’ explosive individual talent up front, the more Atlanta can force those players away from goal and make them defend in their own half, the safer they will be.
This kind of style requires a bravery from Atlanta that will be put to the test since the season will be hanging in the balance. Playing an aggressive style like Atlanta does puts stress on the center backs (as evidenced by Leandro Gonzalez Pirez’s 10 yellow cards this season) and can be an uncomfortable feeling. But Atlanta is ready for this pressure. It’s the way they’ve played all season, as Martino said in his press conference following the Toronto match.
“I don’t really believe in those magic preparations three days before a game. We’ve been playing the same way the whole season so I think that’s the way you have to look at it. We’ll go into the game doing the same thing we’ve been doing all season.”