Atlanta United is brimming with goals and wins in a way we haven’t seen since 2018, but it’s yet to face an obstacle the size of the one it will this week - a dreaded international break. As is custom, MLS will keep playing hand in hand with the international games, leaving both Atlanta and its Matchday 5 rivals, the Columbus Crew, undermanned and devoid of their star players. Nonetheless, the Five Stripes have plenty of momentum and an unbeaten record to preserve against a still-in-construction Columbus.
The Crew is 12th in the Eastern Conference with four points from four rounds to its name. Wilfried Nancy, fresh off a very successful spell at Montreal, replaced Caleb Porter over the offseason after Columbus missed the playoffs in the latter’s final two seasons. The arrival of one of MLS’ best managers was contrasted on the field with a major exodus of key players under Porter, including Derrick Etienne Jr, Artur, and Pedro Santos. The only arrival was that of backup striker Christian Ramirez from Aberdeen and MLS journeyman Jimmy Medranda. Nancy is no stranger to working with limited resources and finding results, so Columbus is betting big on his ability to develop youngsters. Former Romanian international Alexandru Matan has been an early winner, showing more quality in the first four games of 2023 than in the last two seasons combined. The 23-year-old’s revival is a positive sign of what Nancy is capable of. In the current day, however, Columbus is still a team in flux as they adapt to Nancy’s system and recover from the departures of so many key players in 2022. That’s apparent on the pitch as Columbus has fallen on the road to Philadelphia and the Red Bulls but beaten DC United and tied Toronto. In short, just about par for the course.
Columbus will have to make do with almost as much talent as Atlanta. Starting keeper Eloy Room, starting CB Miloš Degenek, and the key cog to the Crew’s attacking hopes, Lucas Zelarayan, are all away on international duty, while striker Cucho Hernandez missed last week with an injury.
Atlanta’s first four games of 2023 have been a huge cause for optimism, but the asterisk of an easy schedule remains - though of course no matter how easy it’s been, these are games Atlanta was most definitely not picking up maximum points from last season. One way or another, that’s going to change over the next few weeks, as Gonzalo Pineda’s men play five of their next seven on the road, including Columbus, both New York teams, Toronto, and Nashville. Obviously, Atlanta won’t be winning 3-0 and 5-1 much more over the next month, but grinding out road results counts just the same as a goal fest at home. If the Five Stripes really are back, we’ll see it over the next 7 games. First, though, Atlanta’s depth will be put through the wringer in Ohio with Luis Abram, Miles Robinson, Ronald Hernandez, Derrick Etienne Jr, Giorgos Giakoumakis, and above all Thiago Almada all away on international duty.
Atlanta has a narrow 6W-1D-7L deficit in the all-time series against the Crew and is currently winless in 3, including a 2-2 away draw and 2-1 loss last season.
Predicted Starting XIs
Prediction: Columbus Crew 1-2 Atlanta United
It won’t be the flashy five-goal outburst we saw last week, but the end result will be the same thanks to strikes from Luiz Araujo and a late Juan Jose Purata header, though Matan will get on the scoresheet to make things interesting.