And then there were 12. What began in March with 22 teams vying for the postseason is now a dozen MLS Cup hopefuls. Eight of them are in action during the middle of the week, with two knockout round games apiece commencing on Wednesday and Thursday. It includes Atlanta United hosting Columbus Crew SC on Thursday night at 7 PM ET (ESPN2, Unimas).
Both the Five Stripes as well as the Black and Gold head into this game having closed out the regular season in blazing hot form. Over the second half of 2017, only Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders finished with more points than Atlanta and Columbus. In Crew SC’s case, they went unbeaten in their final ten games while Atlanta United lost just once in that span.
It’s certainly been a successful inaugural season both on and off the pitch for Atlanta. Not only are they the first expansion team since the 2009 Seattle Sounders to make the playoffs, they also supplanted Seattle at the top of the league attendance standings. In addition, the 71,874 at the season finale against Toronto broke their own single-game MLS attendance record.
Contrast that with Columbus who, despite returning to the playoffs after last year’s disappointing campaign, is dealing with significant uncertainty moving forward. That became apparent after team owner Anthony Precourt announced last week he’s prepared to move the club to Austin, TX if the stadium situation doesn’t improve. The timing of the news came as a shock considering the team’s form heading into the playoffs.
Amidst it all, a spot in the Eastern Conference semifinals goes to the winner of Thursday’s game. What can fans expect from these two sides looking to keep their title hopes alive with a victory? All of it will get dissected below.
2017 MLS Cup Playoffs Knockout Round Preview: Atlanta United vs Columbus Crew SC
2017 Record: 15-9-10 (55 points)
Supporters’ Shield Standings: fourth
Leading goal-scorer: Josef Martinez, 19 (fourth in MLS)
Assists leader: Miguel Almiron, 14 (tied-fourth in MLS)
Tackles leader: Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, 76 (tied-15th in MLS)
Clean sheets: 12 (3rd in MLS)
Under manager Tata Martino, Atlanta plays a high energy 4-3-3 that looks to gash teams in transition. Make the opposition uncomfortable with constant pressing, win the ball, send numbers forward and let a cavalcade of clinical finishers do their thing in the final third. That formula worked wonders in 2017. Atlanta United’s 70 goals and +30 goal differential were both second best in the league behind only Toronto FC.
The ringleader of the Five Stripes’ attack is none other than Josef Martinez. Despite starting in only half his team’s games due to injury, the Venezuelan center forward netted 19 goals, good enough for fourth in MLS. His 76.4 minutes per goal/assists was the lowest mark for any player who logged at least 1,500 minutes. But he’s not the only option around goal. That’s abundantly clear considering that Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba and Yamil Asad have combined for 29 goals and 38 assists.
Though Atlanta’s pressing style can create headaches for the opposition, it can also provide opportunities for patient teams sound on the ball. Break the initial line of pressure and suddenly you find yourselves with acres of space in the midfield to run at their back line. That unit will be short-handed heading into the playoffs with Greg Garza and possibly even Michael Parkhurst out for Thursday’s tussle due to injury.
Though Atlanta love to overwhelm their opponents with chaos in the box and pushing their outside backs high up the field, they’re vulnerable to those same tactics. Even though Columbus also loves to push the tempo and get the fullbacks involved in the attack, they do it a little differently than Atlanta. The best way to take advantage of this particular weakness is to divert a tad from their modus operandi under Gregg Berhalter and play more direct as opposed to building out of the back.
Players to Watch
Josef Martinez: What makes Martinez so dangerous is the fact that he exploits pockets of space in the box more efficiently than any other forward in the league. His vision, anticipation and off-ball movement must be taken into account by the Crew SC centerbacks or else they’re in for a long night.
Miguel Almiron: The Paraguayan number ten made a triumphant return from injury on Sunday, providing an assist on a Martinez goal 13 minutes after coming on against TFC. Only three players in MLS dropped more dimes to their teammates than Almiron’s 14 on the year.
Leandro Gonzalez Pirez: Among MLS centerbacks, perhaps none are more underrated by a vast majority of non-Atlanta fans than Pirez. Not only does he lead the team in tackles, but his 3.1 interceptions per 90 is tops among all MLS central defenders. Advanced stats site Whoscored gave him the seventh highest player rating in the league this year, higher even than his teammate Almiron.
Columbus Crew SC
2017 Record: 16-12-6 (54 points)
Supporters’ Shield Standings: fifth
Leading goal-scorer: Ola Kamara, 18 (fifth in MLS)
Assists leader: Federico Higuain, 14 (tied-fourth in MLS)
Tackles leader: Wil Trapp, 77 (14th in MLS)
Clean sheets: 9 (tied-eighth in MLS)
The Black and Gold are similar to Atlanta in that they boast a dynamic group of attacking players who can beat you in a variety of different ways. It also helps that they’re all pretty much in the best form of their careers. After managing 11 goals in his previous two seasons, Justin Meram put 13 past opposing keepers in 2017. Ola Kamara added 18, two more than his total from last year. And after adding nine assists in the club’s final seven games, Federico Higuain ended 2017 averaging a goal or assist every 97.3 minutes. Among MLS players with at least 1,500 minutes of game action, only seven others registered a min/G+A of under 100.
This year showcased the tactical versatility of this group. At times during the season and partly due to a knee injury to Higuain, Berhalter broke out a 3-4-2-1 formation that pinched both wide attackers inside a bit more where they functioned more as dual central playmakers. It worked fairly well as Columbus went 4-3-1 in games where they played in this shape. But when Higuain returned, it was back to the tried and tested 4-2-3-1. And suffice it to say that from then to now, the Argentinian maestro has bedazzled fans with a magnificent display of playmaking the likes of which this league has rarely seen.
Shoddy back line play has been a continually frustrating issue over the course of Berhalter’s tenure in Columbus, particularly central defense. It shows in the fact that Crew SC finished bottom half of the league in goals conceded during three of his four years in charge, including this season. Part of it is an unfortunate byproduct of the club’s possession-oriented style. Opposing teams counteract it by remaining compact defensively, absorbing pressure and hoping for quick changes of possession in order to hit Columbus on the counter.
But it also has to do with personnel. Exhibit A this year? Jonathan Mensah. Berhalter took a gamble by bringing in a center back on a designated player level salary. Early on, it appeared to be what economists refer to as “sunk cost” applied to the payroll of a soccer team. His multitude of defensive errors led to many an unnecessary goal this year. That said, the Ghanaian World Cup veteran is much improved over this recent hot streak. Him and Josh Williams have formed quite the rapport in the middle of the back line. The latter has three goals in the last four games which is one less than his entire total from his previous six seasons in MLS.
Players to Watch
Zack Steffen: You’re hating if you don’t think the 22-year-old’s USMNT hype train should be cruising at full speed. Steffen was one of just three MLS players to appear in every regular season minute this year. And he made two spectacular saves to deny goals from NYCFC’s David Villa on Sunday, including a denial of a stoppage time penalty kick.
Wil Trapp: The team captain and Columbus native provided a stable and reliable presence in front of the back four this year. He played in all but 25 minutes this year and continued to display his surgical distribution. He finished as one of eight MLS players with a pass accuracy rate above 89 percent.
Federico Higuain: The 33-year-old playmaker is clearly in the running for MLS Comeback Player of the Year after missing a good portion of last year due to a sports hernia. He’s playing as well as anyone who occupies his role in the league right now. The Crew’s ability to pull an upset Thursday will indelibly hinge on his continued presence as a central facilitator.
What to Expect
Make no mistake about it. This is going to be one of the most entertaining of the four knockout round matchups. Both teams excel in the attacking third and have significant question marks defensively. That means a goal fest might be on the horizon. For Columbus, they’re playing for a fanbase with their backs against the wall amid uncertainty surrounding the team’s future in Ohio. But as galvanizing as that may be, playing in front of what will likely be the largest road crowd in club history will be a major challenge.
Atlanta United 4, Columbus Crew 3