It’s taken two years, but at long last Atlanta United is back in the postseason. The Five Stripes’s marathon regular season ended with a 6th place finish, the reward (punishment?) for which is a Wednesday night trip to Columbus in game one of a possible three in Round One.
The Crew is a rather familiar opponent for Atlanta, and they met as recently as October 7th in Atlanta’s home finale. Since then, Columbus has clinched the third seed in the Eastern Conference with 57 points, up 11 points and 5 spots by its 2022 finish. Manager Wilfried Nancy has been the catalyst behind such an improvement, turning Columbus into a goal machine. It boasts the league-best attack with 67 goals scored, spearheaded by Cucho Hernandez (16 goals, 7 assists), Christian Ramirez (8g, 3a), Alexandru Matan (1g, 8a), and Diego Rossi (4g, 2a). Columbus’ defense isn’t quite a stronghold, with the 7th best record in the East, but it’s been massively improved since the summer transfer market and conceded only five in its last six. All in all, though, Columbus is by and far one of the best teams in the league with both the best actual and expected goal differential in the entire league, and as if that wasn’t enough, the Crew is also coming into the postseason in form, unbeaten in 6.
The unlucky team who’ll be facing off with Columbus is none other than our very own Atlanta United. The Five Stripes last featured in the playoffs with a 2-0 loss to NYCFC in November of 2021, and is now back after a 6th place finish this year. Like Columbus, Atlanta’s attack was its strong suit, with its 66 goals scored more than everyone except the Crew. The Five Stripes’ defense, however, was a glaring weakness, conceding the 3rd most in the East. It hasn’t kept a clean sheet since August, and the red-hot post-Leagues Cup form has cooled down with 1 win in the last five and a three-game winless run to end the season. Atlanta has particularly struggled against above-average teams, beating just two playoff teams in seven tries since the Leagues Cup break. That’s not quite a winning strategy when it comes to making a playoff run, but the Five Stripes also have shown that it does have the talent to make some noise. A lot of that talent comes from Thiago Almada, however, who is out suspended for game one. Gonzalo Pineda has a few options, from Amar Sejdic in a 4-3-3, slotting Saba Lobjanidze into the middle where he’s occasionally played previously and putting as much talent onto the field as possible, or completely changing formations to go with a bunker 5-3-2. None of them are equal to what Almada offers, but Atlanta can’t afford to throw away game one because of the absence of one player.
The history books are not on the Five Stripes’ side in this series. Atlanta trails the all-time series with a 6W-2D-8L record against the Crew, including a 6-1 loss and 1-1 draw in this year’s fixtures, and Gonzalo Pineda has never beaten Columbus in four attempts (0W-2D-2L).
Predicted Starting XIs
Prediction: Columbus Crew 1-2 Atlanta United
A likely result? Maybe not, but this is the playoffs after all, and anything can happen. Almada’s absence will be covered up by a superstar display from Giorgos Giakoumakis, and his brace will be enough to earn Atlanta the first-leg advantage thanks to some defensive heroics from the backline.