Another woeful defensive performance condemned Columbus Crew SC to another disappointing result.
In front of 44,922 at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the Black and Gold fell 3-1 to Atlanta United in the first ever MLS regular season meeting between the two clubs. Goals from Hector Villalba, Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez helped lead the home side to victory. The result marks Crew SC’s fourth loss over the past five MLS games.
Columbus Crew SC Drops Third Straight Across All Competitions in Atlanta
Crew SC manager Gregg Berhalter reverted back to the oft-used 4-2-3-1 after setting the team up in a 3-4-3 shape in the club’s last MLS outing, a 2-1 loss at Colorado.
Zack Steffen made his 17th consecutive regular season start for the Black and Gold. The 22-year-old netminder has played every single minute for Columbus this season.
The back four consisted of Harrison Afful and Jukka Raitala out wide and Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams centrally. For Afful, it marked his 50th regular season start for the club. In Williams case, he made his sixth start of the season. In three of the previous five, Columbus posted a shutout. Wil Trapp and Artur comprised the defensive midfield double pivot in front of the defense.
Further up the field, Federico Higuain got the nod in the number ten role while Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay started at left and right winger respectively. Ola Kamara returned to his role up top after he didn’t even make the squad for Crew SC’s 1-0 loss to FC Cincinnati in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup Wednesday.
On the other side of the field, Michael Parkhurst faced his former club in regular season play for the first time. The 33-year-old centerback came to Atlanta via off-season trade. Parkhurst spent his entire three-year tenure in Columbus as the team’s captain.
Intermittent thunderstorms in the Atlanta area precipitated a short delay to proceedings. Kick-off was initially set for 7 PM ET but weather moved it back 22 minutes.
Not long after the match started, Crew SC found themselves with a chance to take an early lead. Meram intercepted a poor pass from Parkhurst and had plenty of space to dribble towards goal. He zig-zagged past Parkhurst and passed the ball to Kamara who made a run at goal towards his left. But Atlanta goalkeeper Alec Kann came off his line and denied Kamara’s attempt to flick it into the net.
Kann came up big once more a few minutes later. This time, he prevented Finlay from notching his first goal since the season opener against Chicago on March 4th. The Crew SC wide player blasted it at goal but Kann parried it away towards his left.
Afterwards, Atlanta began to establish a foothold on the game. Attacking midfielder Julian Gressel had a few legitimate chances to put his team ahead. It included a shot in the 14th minute that went wide left but his reaction afterwards indicated he may have been looking for a back post run from one of his teammates.
The home side eventually came up with the opening goal of the game. Their relentless high pressure forced an error out of Williams whom Yamil Asad dispossessed. He promptly laid it off for Hector Villalba who beat Steffen far post to give Atlanta a 1-0 lead in the 16th minute. It was goal number six of the year for Villalba.
For Columbus, it was the latest in a plethora of defensive lapses for the club this year. It’s a reason they currently sit third worst in MLS in goals conceded. But Atlanta themselves have dealt with their own issues in defense. And they surfaced not long after Villalba put them ahead.
A cross from the right by Afful came into the box right at Parkhurst. But Kamara wrested it away from him with a one-touch back heel to Higuain. He then weaved past Parkhurst and glided it past Kann for the equalizer.
Heading into the break, Atlanta enjoyed an 18.4 percent edge in possession and a 7-3 lead in total shots. But Crew SC made the most of their opportunities with 67 percent of their shots finding the target compared to 43 percent for Atlanta.
Columbus began the second 45 on the back foot with Atlanta forcing the issue. They won two quick corners within the first few minutes but nothing became of either. Gressel and Villalba continued to fire shots at the Crew SC net, with four of Atlanta’s five shots in the first 20 minutes of the second half coming from them two.
In that time, Columbus couldn’t manage a single shot on goal. Later on, 61st minute sub Niko Hansen (came on for Finlay) made a foray towards the Atlanta 18-yard box in an attempt to finally register one. But center back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez brilliantly won the ball from the Crew SC rookie.
It led to a quick counterattack from Atlanta United. After the successful tackle, Gonzalez Pirez distributed the ball out to Miguel Almiron who made a long, central run into space. With Artur tracking, Almiron raced into the box and hit a brilliant low shot towards the far post Steffen couldn’t do much about. The strike of wondrous quality in the 67th minute was the Paraguayan playmaker’s eighth of 2017.
Atlanta added one more in the 88th minute, courtesy of Josef Martinez. The Venezuelan center forward came on as a second half sub for the second straight game after missing the previous ten due to injury. For the second time Saturday, some suspect Crew SC distribution while under pressure in their defensive third of the field led to the goal.
Before his injury, Martinez emerged as one of MLS’ top newcomers. He finished the first three weeks of the season with five goals which led the league at the time. But Saturday’s tally was his first since. Of course, him staying healthy is a key to the team’s success moving forward.
For Columbus, this game is another example of second half subs not coming through while their opponent’s did so with flying colors. Against Colorado, Jonathan Mensah came on and not long thereafter was culpable on Alan Gordon’s game winner. Saturday, 77th minute sub Mohammed Abu gave the ball cheaply to Kevin Kratz in the lead up to Martinez’s goal. Both Atlanta players responsible for the goal came off the bench for Tata Martino’s side.
Crew SC returns to action next Saturday with a home tussle against the Montreal Impact. It’s the club’s first game at MAPFRE Stadium since a 3-0 win over the Seattle Sounders on May 31st. The game kicks off at 7:30 PM ET.
Photo credit: Columbus Crew SC Communications