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Non-Prekrap preview: Atlanta United vs. Columbus Crew SC

AKA how are there only 10 matches left in the season?

MLS: Toronto FC at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

I struggled whether to call this a “Prekrap” or not, but, since that’s Parker’s thing, I’m resorting to stressing that this is a non-Prekrap preview. Also because calling it a Yendys doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

With that out of the way, let’s dive into what is Atlanta United’s first match in quite some time - in over two weeks, in fact - as it faces Gyasi Zardes, Zack Steffen and the Austin Aztex Austin SC Austin some Texas-themed nickname that isn’t “Bold” Columbus Crew SC on Sunday.

Crew might just be getting hot

Before the MLS Cup Playoffs began last year, I stated on this website that I wanted no part in Crew SC in a potential knockout round matchup for Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium:

I don’t know about you, but a potential Atlanta/Columbus matchup would be horrific for United. Sure, Atlanta have won both meetings this year, but the notion of facing them in a one-off scares me.

And...we all know what happened. Atlanta ended up facing Columbus in a 4/5 knockout match, were baffled by Steffen and ultimately fell 3-1 in penalties after a scoreless draw.

Fast forward to today, and whatever you want to call them - Crew SC, the Crew, MLS Austin - Atlanta’s opponent just might be figuring it out as they sit in the middle of a 3-match win streak. Sure, two of those wins were against Orlando City and the Houston Dynamo at home, but despite nearly coughing up a 3-goal lead in the second half en route to a 3-2 victory away to the Red Bulls, it was able to do what only the Chicago Fire have done this year: get a win at Red Bull Arena. (In fact, only one other club beside Chicago and Columbus have left Harrison with a result this season: the Philadelphia Union in a goalless draw that should have seen Philly take all three points.)

Having said that, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing on the road for the Crew: the win at RBA snapped a 4-game winless streak away from their potentially soon-to-be former home of MAPFRE Stadium. Sitting firmly in fourth place, though, they may be gathering a little confidence, and a new (but familiar) face could help them carry on their form.

The Justin Meram effect

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

When Orlando City acquired Meram from the Crew for over $1 million in allocation money, the hope was that the midfielder would help catapult the Lions to its first playoff appearance in franchise history. Seventeen appearances and a goal later...well...let’s say it wasn’t exactly a fit: the fans didn’t warm to him being there and, frankly, Orlando just aren’t very good. In any event, Meram’s back with the Crew, and I think he can do nothing but help them immensely during the stretch run.

Return to a 4-2-3-1?

With Mikey Ambrose, Greg Garza and Sal Zizzo still shelved for a few months and Franco Escobar suspended for yellow card accumulation against Toronto, Atlanta went with three in the back with Michael Parkhurst, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Jeff Larentowicz, pushing Chris McCann and Julian Gressel on either side of Eric Remedi and Kevin Kratz. By all accounts, defensively the team didn’t do all that poorly, but those two late goals in either half will stick out. With Escobar back, we should see a lineup closer to the one we saw against Montreal: Julian Gressel on the right wing and Tito Villalba on the left with Ezequiel Barco probably still out (although Tata Martino said at Friday’s training session that it’s “possible” Barco could be in the 18), with Larentowicz and Remedi in front of the four-man backline of McCann, Gonzalez Pirez, Parkhurst and Escobar.

Take a look at history...again?

MLS: Toronto FC at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

If you haven’t heard, Josef Martinez is currently on 26 goals. One ties him with Roy Lassiter, Chris Wondolowski and Bradley Wright-Phillips for most in a season. Two gives him the record all by himself. And there are nine matches remaining after Sunday!

At the same time, Martinez is a player that, while I know he understands that he’s on the verge of a record, just doesn’t care at the end of the day. Of course, he’s out for goals any way he can get them, but he’s absolutely miserable if the team doesn’t win and is his own worst critic if he feels he could have taken more chances, even in a victory. Still, whether or not he breaks the mark at home, as we’ve said so many times here, appreciate the greatness we’re seeing from a terrific soccer player.

A pivotal home match for Atlanta

Let’s call a spade a spade: Atlanta don’t have the same touch at home as they did last year. In its last six matches at the Benz, they’re 3-0-3, with wins against 9-man Philadelphia, Orlando and D.C. United. Granted, that’s not terrible per se, but at the same time, those three draws (the one against Toronto should have been a win if not for a late goal conceded) will be ones Atlanta look back on ruefully if it ultimately ends up costing the club the Supporters’ Shield.

How big will three points be on Sunday? After that, Atlanta’s next four matches are on the road: Orlando, D.C., Colorado, San Jose. At absolute worst that should be a 10-point trip right there for a club that’s only lost twice on the road this year. The Red Bulls’ next five? At Vancouver, at NYCFC, D.C. and Houston at home, at Montreal. New York City’s next five? At Philly, the aforementioned derby vs. the Red Bulls, at Columbus, home against New England and D.C. If Atlanta takes care of business on Sunday and can pick up what look like some easy points on the road (outside of a suddenly toasty D.C), it can continue to keep itself at the top headed into the latter portion of September.