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Roll the Tape: How Atlanta United crumbled defensively against Columbus Crew

It was bad. It was painful. Let’s talk about why.

SOCCER: MAR 25 MLS - Columbus Crew vs Atlanta United FC Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We knew from the outset that Atlanta United would struggle against the Columbus Crew given the absences of several key players, but we weren’t expecting… that.

On the back of their best performance in years the Five Stripes had their worst game of all time as they fell 6-1 to a Columbus side that was missing its two main attacking threats.

So let’s see what made this game so… bad.

Columbus Crew Goal - Aidan Morris 13’

The opening goal of the game may have seemed to be a case of Columbus finding a very lucky header, but Atlanta made several defensive mistakes before the goal that made it easy for the Crew to score.

The play started with Brad Guzan blasting the ball out to the midfield (blue arrow) under pressure by Christian Ramirez (red arrow). The pressure from Ramirez along with the support from Jacen Russell-Rowe (dotted red line) cuts Guzan off from any passing options (yellow x’s) and force him to go long with the ball.

Guzan’s hasty clearance is brought down by Philip Quinton who first-times a pass to Darlington Nagbe (blue arrow). Here we start to see a couple of positioning issues that make it harder for Atlanta to defend the play well.

Amar Sejdic (circled in red), currently playing in the attacking midfielder role that he didn’t seem comfortable in throughout the match, is very far up the field and it isn’t clear exactly who he’s supposed to mark in this instance. It can’t be Quinton or Nagbe because he starts to run away from them as the play develops and starts to move toward Aidan Morris (red arrow). Common sense would then suggest that Morris is his man, but if that’s the case, why is Sejdic so far from him and how does he then allow the 21-year-old to get so much space to run away from him into the box to score?

The second problem is Santiago Sosa (circled in yellow) who isn’t really marking anyone here. He’s between Morris and Nagbe (dotted yellow arrows), but doesn’t actually approach either of them. He’s just sort of… side steps and covers empty space that the play isn’t flowing toward anyways. He’d be in a good spot if there was a player that space who could receive the ball, but there isn’t anyone nor is there any attempt by Columbus to play through that area. Sosa should probably be stepping up to pressure Nagbe as he is the closest player.

Here, you get a better picture of what I was just talking about. Sosa (circled in red) is half the distance from Nagbe that Franco Ibarra is, but he just continues to watch the ball instead of… you know… pressuring? This forces Ibarra to step up (yellow arrow) to maintain the pressure, drawing the Argentine away from the box.

The miscommunication doesn’t end there, though. Seeing that no one was stepping up to press Nagbe, Luiz Araújo also decides to move toward him (red arrow). This leaves space on the flank for Mohamed Farsi to make a run behind the Brazilian and receive the ball (dotted blue arrow).

However, Nagbe is about to see a much deadlier option develop in the form of Alexandru Matan who isn’t visible in this frame, but is right around where that purple arrow is pointing. Having found an unmarked teammate in an interesting position, the former Atlanta United man played the ball to Matan (solid blue arrow).

Things are getting dicey. Matan is in a great spot and makes a run for the corner of the box (blue arrow). Brooks Lennon was tucked so far in that he has given Matan loads of space. To try and make up for that, the 25-year-old Arizona native tries to cut Matan off by moving to where he thinks the Romanian will go: out to the side of the 18-yard box (red arrow). Araújo is also on his way back with a mad sprint to try and intercept Matan (yellow arrrow).

With two defenders closing Matan down, it would be reasonable to expect that ONE of them would be able to tackle him or get in his way or cause the slightest inconvenience to him so that he doesn’t just waltz into th-

Or not. Lennon just continues moving out of Matan’s way and Araújo runs behind him to allow the Romanian to just… waltz… into the box (blue arrow). In an effort to prevent Matan from getting any further, Ibarra steps up to close him down (red arrow).

It’s too late, though. Ibarra can’t get there before Matan fires a low cross to the heart of the box (blue arrow). Take note of what’s developing on the other side of the frame. Morris has started to make a run toward the six-yard box (yellow arrow) right in front of Andrew Gutman (underlined in purple).

Now, if Morris really was Sejdic’s man, there’s no reason for him to be making this run all alone. Someone needs to be with him and it’s clearly not supposed to be Sejdic because…

… Sejdic (circled in purple) is all the way over at the top of the box!!!

So Morris is allowed to continue his run (red arrow) and be in open space to receive a ball that - through a combination of bad defending on one side and sheer luck that it deflected just the right way off of Sosa (blue arrow) - landed right where he needed it.

I also want to point out that Russell-Rowe’s presence draws Noah Cobb toward him, which draws the 17-year-old away from Morris (yellow arrow). I’m not going to blame Cobb on this play, though. I think he does the right thing.

Morris heads the ball with minimal discomfort…

… and easily finds the back of the net to give Columbus a 1-0 lead.


  • Know your role. Many of the problems that allowed the attack to progress so much had to do with players not knowing their roles in the pressing system. The two most obvious moments were Sejdic not marking anyone and the three-way miscommunication about who should’ve stepped up to pressure Nagbe (the answer is Sosa by the way). The players are repeatedly trained to recognize the instances when they’re supposed to press and when they’re supposed to hang back and cover while a teammate steps up. When one player slips up, it forces other players to abandon their posts and things can unravel pretty quickly as they did her.
  • Amar Sejdic is not an attacking midfielder. He just isn’t. It was clear from the first few times that he received the ball that he was just so uncomfortable in the role. From the terrible one-touch passes to the instances when he would easily be 2v1’d because Columbus knew he was nowhere near as skilled or creative with the ball as Thiago Almada. And I know that some of you will argue that there wasn’t anyone else to play as a central attacking midfielder. Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret: nowhere in the 10 commandments of soccer does it say “thou shalt always have a number 10.” Atlanta United DID NOT have to play with a number 10. Sejdic plays his best in the center midfield as more of an eight. He has done well in that position and should have been kept there using a different tactical system. Which leads into my next point…
  • Wrong Tactics. There are several systems that Pineda could’ve employed for this match that did not involve a central attacking midfielder and would’ve helped the team maintain a more defensive posture (5-4-1 would’ve been my choice, but a 3-5-2 with Araújo as a second striker with Berry could’ve worked as well). The team was lacking some important players necessary for their typical high-pressing scheme in an away game where the objective should have been to keep Columbus out and occasionally break forward and counter when they got the chance. Instead, they tried to play the aggressive press and got burned hard by a team that was better set up from the midfield forward and were able to take advantage of Atlanta’s disorganized state.

Columbus Crew Goal - Christian Ramirez 47’

A lot of the game felt like the 2022 season all over again. Maybe part of it was the Forest Kit, but this goal and the bad defending inside the box really screamed last year to me.

It starts with Matan down the middle sending a long ball over the top (blue arrow) for Russell-Rowe (circled in yellow) who’s already making a run down the flank. As this is happening, Ramirez makes a run in between the two center backs to find space at the far post (purple arrow).

Russell-Rowe gets the ball, but smartly delays the cross (blue arrow) since he knows Ramirez can’t get to it quite yet. If the ball passes anywhere in the red rectangle, Atlanta’s defenders would probably be able to clear it. Besides, Pirate has a significant head start on Ramirez who is a good couple of yards behind him. Ramirez knows this and continues his run (purple arrow) to get into open space and receive the cross.

Russell-Rowe sees that now is as good a time as any to send in the cross before Sosa closes him down any further. He sends a low-driven ball down the heart of Atlanta’s box and what comes next is something I’m going to call “A Tragedy in Three Parts.”

Part one: Noah Cobb tries to dive and get a toe to the ball, but his backward momentum makes his dive more like a fall onto his rear. He doesn’t touch the ball and it goes past him. Notice that Caleb Wiley is trying to get in front of Ramirez (circled in yellow) because he knows that he’s going to shoot once the ball gets to him.

Part two: Juanjo Purata, who seemed to be moving into the path of the ball (and might’ve actually been able to deflect it had he stuck his foot out), can’t interrupt the ball’s path either. The ball gets past him and now the only thing between Ramirez and an easy goal is Wiley (circled in red) who is just getting ahead of Ramirez, but…

Part 3: Wiley slides to try and block Ramirez’s shot, but he goes to early. Ramirez’s shot goes behind him and flies into Guzan’s net to double Columbus’ lead.


  • Déjà vu. I swear I’ve seen this play before or at least something like it. It feels like it happened very often last season in almost the exact same fashion. The past four games, Atlanta seemed very solid defending balls from the right side. Perhaps the absence of Miles Robinson to keenly pick out that cross was the defining factor. Maybe that explains why Atlanta conceded several goals that way last season. It’s hard to blame Noah Cobb for not getting to the ball - it was his MLS debut at just 17 years old and the shoes he had to fill were massive- but I do believe that Purata could’ve done more to get there. Looking at the replay, it almost looks like he was going to lunge for it, but hesitated at the last second. Hopefully Robinson’s return can help patch up the holes that this defense leaves that expose them to these kinds of goals.
  • Don’t give players so much space inside the box. Purata had been tracking Ramirez since he made a run into the box. You can see him in the replay looking back toward him to know where he is. That’s not the problem. The problem comes when you know there’s a player inside the box and you give them the room that Purata gave Ramirez. You need to stay closer to them especially when the ball is coming from the side like that. That way you have a better chance of preventing the opponent from receiving the ball in such a compromising position.

Columbus Crew Goal - Russell-Rowe 67’

It’s a bad idea to leave a player completely unmarked anywhere in the box. That’s it. That’s the intro you get for this goal. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look.

Play starts from midfield with Morris passing to Matan just past the halfway line (blue arrow). Naturally, Ibarra steps up to pressure Matan being the closest defender (red arrow).

Now look toward the far touchline. Farsi has just started a run attacking Atlanta’s left flank (purple arrow), but Wiley (circled in yellow) hasn’t seen the run yet.

Matan has time to turn, see Farsi’s run (yellow arrow) and deliver a good ball into the space ahead of him (blue arrow) to play him in. Notice that Wiley (circled in red) is just now turning around and starting his run while Farsi is already sprinting to get the ball. This puts the Crew’s midfielder at an advantage and he’ll get to the ball first.

Farsi is at the edge of the box and is looking for a teammate to cross to. You know what makes an excellent target for a cutback into the box? A player who’s wide open like Russell-Rowe (circled in yellow) is right now. The closest players to him at this point are Lennon (dotted red arrow) and Sosa (dotted purple arrow) who are both several yards away. Farsi passes to Russell-Rowe (blue arrow)…

… who gets on the ball with a ferocious strike that completely beats Guzan.


  • Don’t leave players wide open in the box. If you ask me, Russell-Rowe was probably Lennon’s man to mark given his proximity to him and the fact that they were both running into the box together before Russell-Rowe angled his run away from the Five Stripes’ fullback. Lennon should’ve been more aware of that and stayed with Russell-Rowe at least until support arrived. I mean, Lennon wasn’t exactly covering anyone else in the box, so he should’ve been free to mark Russell-Rowe and prevent him from getting such an easy shot.
  • Wiley may be fantastic when attacking, but his weakness is defending. Wiley needed to be more aware Farsi’s positioning and watched for his run. He didn’t and Farsi got the edge in the race for the ball. Of course, Wiley is young and still has much to learn. Hopefully Gutman won’t be out for a significant amount of time and Wiley can play further upfield as a winger where I think he plays at his best.

And that wraps up this week’s look at Atlanta United’s defending. I wish there were some positives to rescue from this match, but it really was just an awful showing all-around. Hopefully things are better against the Red Bulls on Saturday. As always, let me know what you think in the comments below!