[COLUMBUS, OH] – For the second time in as many games, Hector Villalba proved to be kryptonite for Columbus Crew SC.
In front of a sold out crowd of 20,391, the Argentinian designated player notched a brace for Atlanta United FC as the Five Stripes romped to a 2-0 win in their first-ever game at MAPFRE Stadium. The win vaulted Atlanta to fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings at Columbus Crew SC’s expense, who fell to sixth. It also moved Atlanta to 2-0 all-time against Columbus.
Hector Villalba Brace Condemns Columbus Crew SC to Third Home Loss of 2017
Crew SC lined up in the familiar 4-2-3-1 formation. Zack Steffen made his 19th consecutive start, having played every minute of the season thus far. The back line from left to right consisted of Jukka Raitala, Jonathan Mensah, Josh Williams and Harrison Afful. The Ghanaian duo of Mensah and Afful played midweek for Ghana in a friendly against Mexico but left the team afterwards.
Further up the field, Wil Trapp and Artur sat in front of the back four while Justin Meram, Federico Higuain and Ethan Finlay comprised the attacking midfield trio. Ola Kamara got the start as the lone striker up top.
The potential for attacking fireworks certainly abounded. Seven starters, Meram, Higuain and Kamara along with Atlanta’s Villalba, Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and Yamil Asad, have combined for 52 goals and 38 assists up to this point. Early on, the match progressed at a high pace with end-to-end action and both clubs trading opportunities at net.
In the first meeting between these sides on June 17th, Villalba opened up the scoring. It came via Crew SC failing to diagnose Atlanta’s high pressure. Two weeks later, the Argentinian wide player notched the first goal of the game once more.
Only this time, it came via direct play.
Goalkeeper Alec Kann blasted a long ball which Mensah struggled adjusting to. Villalba timed his run well to receive the ball and lofted it over Steffen to put the visitors up 1-0 in the 27th minute. Advanced stats site Whoscored.com credited Mensah with an “error that led to a goal” on the sequence.
“We pressed and they hit it long and we didn’t attack the first ball,” Mensah noted on the goal after the game. “We were supposed to attack it but we didn’t and we got punished for that.”
In the lead-up to the tally, Columbus tried to beat the visitors at their own game, playing with a high line in the hopes of an attacking third turnover. But the route one ball from Kann reversed their fortunes rather quickly.
“Atlanta has two things that they do very well, offensive transition and high pressure,” Berhalter emphasized post-game. “I think at the time of the first goal we were actually getting after them, pressuring them and forcing them into a long ball.
“I don’t think it caught us off guard, I just think that in general we could’ve dealt with it better.”
Crew SC struggled to create anything of substance in terms of scoring chances for the remainder of the half. Of the three shots the Black and Gold registered in the opening 45, only Meram’s found net. Kamara’s only effort was from long-range with the Atlanta defense blocking it.
The one-goal deficit forced Columbus to come out with vigor in the second half. And that’s exactly what happened. The home side created three chances and notched three shots all within the first 15 minutes. But despite the effort in search of an equalizer, none of the attempts forced a save out of Kann.
Atlanta took advantage in the 64th minute. And once again, it was Villalba who etched his name onto the score sheet. An Almiron cross into the box didn’t get properly cleared by Mensah. Instead, it trickled to Villalba who settled the ball and hit it past Steffen’s right hand side and into the net. Suddenly, Crew SC found themselves down two.
Over the final 25 minutes of the game, the Black and Gold continued to march into Atlanta’s side of the field in search of something to get back into the game. But nothing ever materialized. The team managed five shots in that time span, with none finding the target.
Perhaps the biggest summation of the night came in second half stoppage time. Kamara found himself open in the middle of the box eight yards from goal when a well-placed ball from Kekuta Manneh, who came on in the 61st minute, came his way. But he scuffed the shot to the left of goal and looked bewildered and frustrated afterwards.
The Black and Gold have a short turnaround before their next match. That, in and of itself, presents challenges with respect to the lineup and who Berhalter decides to rotate into it if need be.
“We’ll find out (about the level of the challenge),” Meram emphasized. “We’ll try to get fresh legs, try to get healthy and try to get a win.”
That test comes against Minnesota United on the Fourth of July this coming Tuesday. Kickoff from TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis takes place at 7 PM ET.