Say what you will about the Gabriel Heinze saga, it’s hard to argue that his tenure descended into a predictable and dreary pattern once the honeymoon period wore off. By the time July rolled around, the only thing rarer in Five Stripes land than goals were wins. While Rob Valentino wasn’t able to break Atlanta United’s longest-ever winless run, the interim manager did bring the fun factor back to the Five Stripes in his debut on the sideline. A draw at Cincinnati isn’t usually much to get excited about but the return of an entertaining Atlanta United is worth more than three points. Valentino’s next task will be to prove that what we saw Wednesday was far from a flash in a pan. He’ll have a chance to impress again this weekend when Atlanta plays host to the other Ohio side and reigning MLS Cup champs Columbus Crew.
The Crew’s title defense hasn’t gotten off to a stellar start and it's currently in 6th with 21 points. The biggest area of worry after 14 games comes in the final third. Despite Lucas Zelarayan’s best efforts, Columbus has the lowest expected goals in the East (11.4) and third-fewest goals (15). Other than Zelarayan, who leads the Crew with 5 goals, only Gyasi Zardes has multiple goals and he’s on the USMNT roster for the Gold Cup. The Argentine is particularly deadly from set-pieces and has four direct free goals to his name. Other than him, however, Columbus has been toothless in 2021. Winter signing Kevin Molino has missed lengthy spells due to injury, while Luis Diaz (1g, 0a), Pedro Santos (0g, 3a), and Derrick Etienne (0g, 0a) are yet to make a real impact. While its’ attack has been lethargic at best, Columbus’s defense helps make up lost ground. The Crew has the best defensive record in the Eastern Conference (12 goals conceded) and it's kept five shutouts.
Despite the seven-point gap, Atlanta is well within its capabilities to challenge Columbus for all three points Saturday, but the deciding factor could be down to Zelarayan. Atlanta doesn’t have anyone able to create like the 29-year-old and if he’s at his best he can rip the Five Stripes defense to shreds. Santiago Sosa will have his hands full keeping Zelarayan under control and if he does, Columbus doesn’t have many other routes of attack. As for Atlanta, though it did remember how to create chances against Cincinnati, the Crew’s backline is going to offer a much tougher test. Having Josef back gives Atlanta an edge, especially if it plays with the same intensity it showed in the latter stages against Cincy.
Predicted Starting XIs
Prediction: Atlanta United 1-0 Columbus Crew
The Crew’s rock-solid defense against a not-too-shabby Atlanta backline will make for a game decided on the margins. In the end a moment of magic from Josef Martinez will break the deadlock, while Zelarayan is kept quiet by Sosa (though at the cost of yet another yellow for the Argentine midfielder). Three points would not only break Atlanta’s lengthy winless run but keep the Five Stripes hovering around the playoff line, currently six points away.