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Atlanta United vs. Columbus Crew: What to watch for

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The Five Stripes look to end the MLS losing streak

MLS: New York City FC at Atlanta United FC Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United Football Club will take on the Columbus Crew Soccer Club on Saturday evening at Bobby Dodd. The Five Stripes are coming off of three straight not so great performances. Last week the team lost even though the Five Stripes found space behind Chicago’s backline because they couldn’t finish chances and were wasteful with crosses and in possession on the right flank. This loss particularly stings because it came against a disjointed looking Chicago Fire side that found space behind the United backline and finished their chances.

Matt Doyle of MLSSoccer.com has a highlight reel showing how the Fire broke through the very high line that Atlanta played and found Bastian Schweinstiger space and time to be on the ball and avoid the Peachtree Press here:

Luckily, United isn’t playing a defensively stout side like Vancouver or a team with a World Cup winning midfielder like Chicago. But the Five Stripes will have a difficult opponent coming to town when Columbus rolls into Bobby Dodd on Saturday. The Crew have the talent to score goals in bunches and at times have defended very well this year. They’ve also been maddeningly inconsistent and have struggled to score on the road with nine goals in eight away matches.

One week Columbus comes back to win 3-2 at Montreal, the next they ship five goals in Toronto to Victor Vazquez, Michael Bradley, and seemingly nine of TFC’s backups. Atlanta has had their own consistency issues and despite winning in the U.S. Open Cup, coach Tata Martino wasn’t happy with what he saw. Even with Columbus struggling with consistent play in their midfield and any kind of backline cohesion, Atlanta will need to rediscover their dominant form in order to come away with three points this week.

A defense that can’t defend vs. an attack that can’t score

The Crew spent last year losing ugly, despite possessing the ball well and maintaining that part of their identity they defended the 2015 Eastern Conference title by taking a big step back on defense. They shipped out Michael Parkhurst, thank you very much, and revamped their backline with newcomers Alex Crognale to pair with Nicolai Naess who came in last season. Naess has looked less like a solution to their defensive woes and more like a lesson that MLS attackers have surpassed their Tippeligaen counterparts.

Adding to the situation with their backline, the Crew have had difficulty controlling central midfield with Will Trapp looking like a player that peaked in 2014 and Artur failing to keep tempo or shield the defense.

They will face an Atlanta United side that managed three goals against a USL team but is averaging .5 goals in their past two MLS games. Granted one of those featured a team missing Miguel Almiron for 23 of the game, but both Chicago and Vancouver have shown that getting a lead against United and then being tough to breakdown is an effective way to stymie the best attack in MLS. The Crew are much more possession oriented so if they stay true to that, United should find space behind the backline like they did against NYCFC more easily this weekend.

A potent attack against a disunited defense

The Crew are no slouches when it comes to scoring goals and have some dangerous attacking players. Justin Meram, Federico Higuain, and Ola Kamara are a fearsome three headed monster. Meram is a talented winger who has a hat trick to his name already this season, Higuain pulls the strings and has five goals in his last eight games, and Kamara has eight goals on the year.

The Columbus attackers will face an Atlanta United defense that looks, well, disunited. After being a strength of the team to begin the season, the backline has allowed five goals in their past two MLS matches. Worse still, they’ve come in a variety of ways be it two from corners, three from open play, and one from a possibly avoidable penalty - so it isn’t as if there is one area that the backline needs to work on to get back to form. The Five Stripes will need it if the Crew are on their game when they have possession.

You spin me right round

Counting Wednesday, Atlanta will play 7 games between June 14 and July 4. That’s a lot of soccer. It will test the team’s depth, how well Martino has implemented his tactics, and his creativity as a manager. Hopefully the team will move up in the table and keep its U.S. Open Cup dreams alive in that time. Testing the depth will mean that some weird things will happen in these matches - Brandon Vazquez at right wing, for example - some of those will work - Brandon Vazquez at right wing, for example - some of them won’t - Brandon Vazquez at right wing, for example - but Martino will have an idea about how deep and versatile the team is and what holes need to be filled in the transfer period.

Nothing will surprise me this weekend. Miguel Almiron played in four games in three countries in the last two weeks, Josef Martinez is just coming off of injury, and Jeff Larentowicz has played a lot in the past few weeks also. This is also a short week and Greg Garza most likely missed training today for the birth of his child in what would have been a short week due to the Open Cup game and Martino may elect to rest him against the Crew. Replacing key players in the lineup will be crucial for United in this stretch.

In the past couple of matches Kevin Kratz and Mark Bloom have emerged as viable choices in central midfield and anywhere on the backline respectively and Martino could find more playing time for them with other players needing rest. The schedule congestion could also mean an expanded role for Andrew Carleton and a chance for Chris Goslin to make his first team debut.

Side note, I want to win this game

I want the Five Stripes to win every game but especially this one, mostly because I expect we’ll be subject to this meme again:

This is a stupid meme, don’t get me wrong the Antebellum South was a racist kleptocracy and worse, but the idea that Columbus gets one over on Atlanta because William Sherman was from there is just incredibly lame and unoriginal and really shows how much of a second rate town Columbus, Ohio is. I mean really? The city that gave us such symbols of the demise of American culture like Rascal Flats, Guy Fieri, and has no fewer than 14 Skyline Chili restaurants in it - is only relevant because of having a football team with some classroom buildings around it - is the capital of its state by virtue of the fact that is in the middle of it - somehow thinks that it can stack up to a rising world class city and the best they got is a trite Civil War reference? Come on.

I have no doubt that a city that can only sell out a soccer game if the USMNT is playing Mexico in it and has a stadium that tried to burn itself down in order to escape central Ohio is a great refuge from the crumbling rust belt wasteland elsewhere in the state. That’s the only positive about the place - I bet hearing a Rascal Flats song before the 2015 MLS Cup game is why Will Trapp hit that weak backpass that led to Portland’s first goal in that game, and I’m sure that Skyline Chili made Kei Kamara want to leave Columbus so bad that he got in the fight over the PK with Higuain last year, and nothing explains the demise of Ethan Finley more causally than defenders whispering ‘Guy Fieri’ to him every time he touches the ball.

All that is to say, let’s hang a lot of goals on Columbus and play cohesive defense this weekend.