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Atlanta United vs. Columbus Crew SC: Q&A With Massive Report

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Hanging by a thread.

New York Red Bulls v Columbus Crew

Before Atlanta United faced FC Cincinnati in the 2nd round of the MLS Is Back Tournament’s group stage, it needed a win to boost its hopes of advancing to the knockout stage and to finally get out of the gate following a long layoff.

After a 1-0 loss to Cincinnati, Atlanta United are in deep, deep trouble.

Jake Mulraney’s 2 yellow cards not even halfway through the 1st half saw Frank de Boer’s game plan go out the window, Pity Martinez had a regressive showing, while Cincy showed no serious attempt at scoring until Frankie Amaya’s banger stood as the first, and only goal, in Thursday’s tilt.

Next up: Columbus Crew SC, who have scored 6 times and let in 0 goals over the first 2 matches of the tournament. Ahead of what will be a match that easily has more meaning to the 5 Stripes than is does for Columbus, Pat Murphy from Massive Report previewed the Crew’s approach to Tuesday, broke down the emergence of its new signing, and gave his thoughts on the man wearing No. 6 that Atlanta fans may know a little about.

1. The Crew have come out flying, to say the least: They played FC Cincinnati off the pitch last Saturday before riding goals from Gyasi Zardes and Lucas Zelarayan to a 2-0 win against New York Red Bulls on Thursday. With their spot in the knockout stages secured, how do you think they approach this match against an Atlanta United side that have struggled from the starting blocks in Orlando?

Caleb Porter made it very clear before the start of the MLS is Back Tournament that these first three games were very important because they count toward the regular season. While we don’t know what that will look like after the MLS is Back Tournament, Porter wanted to put his team in the best possible position for whatever a season is left in 2020. With that said, he also doesn’t want to burn his players out given the time off, short rest and weather conditions. It’s a balancing act.

Porter rotated five players from the first to the second game due to minor injuries, tactics and rest. It would not surprise me to see him do something similar in this game. While I still expect a strong lineup, I could see players like Gyasi Zardes, Lucas Zelarayan, Darlington Nagbe or Jonathan Mensah (all starters in each of the first two games) beginning on the bench and coming in if needed. We may see the first appearance of left back Milton Valenzuela in the tournament after he missed the first game with an injury and was left on the bench last week.

It’s a tough call but I definitely expect the Crew to go for three points in this one.

2. Zelarayan came over from Tigres, of course, and has made an instant impact with 3 goals in 4 matches, including 2 goals and 2 assists during the tournament. Having taken the reins from Federico Higuain as the No. 10, what qualities do you see in Zelarayan’s play that mirror, or perhaps are different from, what we saw from Higuain during his long career in Ohio?

Columbus Crew SC v New York Red Bulls - MLS Is Back Tournament Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

It’s easy to compare Higuain and Zelarayan because they are both Argentinean playmakers, but I think they make their impact on the field in different ways. Likely due to the age difference (Zelarayan is 28, Higuain was 34 last year), Zelarayan is certainly more mobile. He also appears to have more of a nose for goal (although Higuain is doing a good job scoring for D.C. United so far). I think a more apt comparison for Zelarayan would be Diego Valeri, who also worked under Porter in Portland. The two seem to act almost as second forwards at times, as opposed to the classic No. 10.

3. Of course, the performance of Columbus’s No. 6 will be of interest to Atlanta United fans. Darlington Nagbe got his wish and was traded from Atlanta to Columbus, to not only be closer to home but to be reunited with Caleb Porter. With his familiarity with Porter’s system collegiately at Akron and professionally with Portland, is it fair to say that it’s made it that much easier for him to make a seamless adjustment to Crew SC?

New York Red Bulls v Columbus Crew

The fact that Porter and Nagbe know each other so well certainly hasn’t hurt the quick gelling of the midfielder into the Crew’s system. Of course, I think Nagbe’s a good enough player that he can step into most midfields and make the team better. I don’t have to tell your readers how good he is on the ball and in possession and it seems to me he’s improved as a defender as well from the last time he worked with Porter.

Through the first four games of 2020, Nagbe has hardly missed a pass and been involved with a number of the Black & Gold’s goals. While Crew fans weren’t happy to see Wil Trapp depart this offseason, Nagbe has quietly come in and filled that void in the middle of the field alongside Artur.