Do you have to hear again that Atlanta United is struggling on the road? It is getting old, but it will be a story that is told over and over again until United turn it around away from Bobby Dodd. Since the stretch when the Five Stripes played four straight away games in March and April and got five points out of those games, the team earned just one point out of five games. They put the cherry on top Wednesday getting eliminated from the Open Cup. That said, this match shapes up fairly well for Atlanta.
United need to start getting some kind of positive result from away matches. A draw would be a marked improvement over the form they have displayed in their past three MLS away games where the team has scored two goals while allowing seven. Here’s what to watch for as United tries to regain their early season road form.
Right Into Our Hands
The desire of the Crew to play out of the back, move the ball though midfield, and try to create chances that way plays right into the Peachtree Press. Their style of play will allow Atlanta to force turnovers and spring up the field with more frequency than the team has recently in away games.
DC United played a much more proactive game against Atlanta recently than they did in May (and still needed a fluffed clearance to come away with a win) but they kept to their overall defensive strategy to absorb pressure and try to counter against Atlanta. At Vancouver, United faced a team that was very difficult to break down and once the Whitecaps took the lead, Atlanta chased the game to no avail.
This bodes well going into the game against Columbus. The Crew are the same team United beat 3-1 just two weeks ago. In that match, the possession stats were nearly even but the Five Stripes had such better chances and were more effective with the ball so it didn’t matter. This is in comparison to teams like DC United, the Vancouver Whitecaps, and even the Chicago Fire. In the losses to those teams, United had possession but were completely ineffective at converting it to goals.
Part of the reason the Crew struggled so much two weeks ago is because their central midfield was terrible at connecting the defense and forwards and could not keep possession in the face of Atlanta’s press. If the Crew try to play out of the back and United is able to press effectively, the team could come away with a better result than in their recent road games.
A Pair of Three Headed Beasts
Columbus has three players who can change the course of a game with a brief moment of brilliance and skill. Ola Kamara, Justin Meram, and Federico Higuain are all offensive threats anytime they touch the ball. Higuain should especially strike fear in the hears of defenders across the league. The Crew midfielder has scored in four straight games including a brace last weekend against Montreal. Columbus even has its own maddeningly inconsistent player who turns threatening plays into turnovers, occasionally has his touch escape him, and fluffs would be goals in former Next Big Thing Ethan Finlay.
The Five Stripes version of this is Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, and Yamil Asad. Martinez scores goals that have an air of inevitability to them. Asad draws fouls, has a tremendous work rate when trying to win the ball back, works gorgeous sequences between himself, Greg Garza, and Almiron, and is tied with the lead in assists with 9. Meanwhile, Miguel does it all doing justice to the number 10 shirt game after game. While Tito Villalba hasn’t been excellent, and has probably missed some chances he should have buried, he may very well be the most misunderstood player on the team.
As far as what this means for the game it is that United and Columbus should have plenty of chances. The Crew haven’t scored 29 goals this year because they can’t put the ball in the net and United is obviously a team that can score. Atlanta hasn’t really been in a shootout since the match against Toronto in April, a match the Five Stripes were missing Josef Martinez in.
Hold the Lead (or draw) Please
Atlanta has developed a bad habit of dropping points after getting the lead. This has been particularly problematic on the road. In games at Portland, DC, and Vancouver the Five Stripes took a lead only to draw or lose. Quite simply, this team will not make the playoffs if this is a habit that continues. Whether it is a tactical problem and coach Martino needs to make an adjustment for how the team plays to keep leads, or the team takes a mental vacation after scoring on the road, something has to change or improve. If it doesn’t Atlanta risks not making the playoffs, the East is just too good this year.
Columbus have a pair of players that can be dangerous off the bench when looking for a late equalizing or game winning goal. In addition to the three headed monster described above, the Crew have Adam Jahn and Kekuta Manneh coming off the bench. Jahn is a target forward and poacher made for the physicality and poor defending of MLS. Manneh is an exciting winger who is adjusting to a new team but has the raw talent to individually transform a game.
Both are capable of doing to Atlanta what Poku did on Wednesday and turn a draw (albeit one heading into extra time) into a loss for the Five Stripes. As detailed above, the Crew are a mighty team when it comes to scoring goals and if United wants to start the second half of the season with success on the road, they will need to do a more effective job at not giving away points.