Atlanta United vs. Columbus: Which has advantages?

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Atlanta United vs. Columbus: Which has advantages?

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Branden Camp
Atlanta United fans cheer in the stands as players warm up before a Major League Soccer game between the Atlanta United and Montreal Impact at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium , Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
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Atlanta United will host Columbus on Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the first round of the MLS playoffs. The game will be televised by ESPN2 at 7 p.m.

The winner will advance to a two-legged series against either Toronto, the top seed, or NYCFC, the second seed, that starts Monday or Tuesday. 

Atlanta United and Columbus could be considered the most stylistically pleasing teams in MLS. Both teams like to press. Both teams like to play out of the back, which requires passing and confidence. Both teams have technically gifted players. Both teams feature a similar trio of influential players.

“I love the way Columbus plays, their movement,” Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez said. “I think they have one of the most defined styles of play in the league. The advantage is we are playing at home.”

Here’s a look at the game:

Atlanta United’s strikers vs. Columbus’ defense

The Five Stripes use just one striker, but what a striker Martinez has been, with 19 goals and a scoring ratio of almost a goal per game. His speed, jumping ability and ability to shoot with either foot has made him arguably the most effective forward in the league. He is tenacious on defense in trying to create turnovers and will constantly play off the back shoulder of defenders, which makes him hard to track.

Though Martinez is the only striker, there are several Atlanta United’s players, particularly the fullbacks, that will move up and play on the same line to spread out the defense to give Martinez those cracks to exploit.

Columbus’ defense has been prone to mistakes this season, such as on the one led to Hector Villalba’s goal off an Alec Kann goal kick at Mapfre Stadium. Zack Steffen tied for fifth in saves (98). The Crew have allowed 49 goals this season.

Advantage: Atlanta United.

Atlanta United’s midfield vs. Columbus’ midfield

This will be fun to watch because both teams feature dynamic midfields.

Atlanta United holding midfielders Jeff Larentowicz and Carlos Carmona have formed a very effective partnership that are among the reasons why the team has 12 shutouts this season, while Columbus’ attacking midfielder Federico Higuain (9 goals, 14 assists) has re-discovered his form in the past few games  and can pick out a pass if given time and space. Justin Meram is solid on offense, with a preference to tuck inside and create numerical advantages, and defense.

“If you give them too much space in midfield to create chances, to dribble at their back line, they are very dangerous and can create chances at any time,” Atlanta United’s Kevin Kratz said. “That’s something we have to take care of, to pressure them and not give them too much space.”

 Yamil Asad is a tenacious defender on the left side of Atlanta United’s formation and will be tasked with controlling Justin Meram (13 goals, 7 assists). Hector Villalba can be just as aggressive on the right, but has switched off at key moments this season. He can’t do that against Pedro Santos.

When Villalba (13 goals, 11 assists) and Asad (six goals, 13 assists) go forward and connect with Miguel Almiron (9 goals, 14 assists) and Martinez, Atlanta United’s offense is very difficult to stop.

Higuain isn’t known for his defense, which will put pressure on Columbus’ holding midfielders Mohammed Abu and Wil Trapp because Almiron is a game-changer. Plus, in the past few games, Atlanta United has sent runners up the middle to try to take advantage of through balls.

Advantage: Atlanta United.

Columbus’ strikers vs. Atlanta United’s defense

If Michael Parkhurst, who twisted his knee in the finale against Toronto, plays alongside Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Atlanta United’s defense can be tough to crack with seven shutouts in the past 10 games. In the two games that Pirez missed during that stretch, both because of yellow-card accumulation, Atlanta United’s defense allowed five goals.

Brad Guzan has been a difference-maker in goal for the team with a goals-against average of 0.71 and a save percentage of 80.4. Both led the league.

The team has been susceptible to switching off on defense in the minutes after it scores and defending set-pieces can be an adventure.

Columbus’ Ola Kamara doesn’t have the reputation of the league’s other top strikers, but he has still scored 18 goals this season, including 10 in the past 10 games. He is very good with his back to the goal. He has scored more than one goal in a game just once this season. He will be fed by Higuain and Meram, which is Atlanta United’s version of the Almiron/Martinez/Villalba partnership.

“We understand those three players are the most influential,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said. “But they like to play out of the back with their goalkeeper so we have to do our best to cut out the passes all the way up to those three guys.”

Advantage: Atlanta United.

Intangibles

Atlanta United has the advantage of playing at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where it has broken one MLS attendance record in September, broke it again in Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Toronto, and is expected to break a league record for playoff attendance Thursday.

Meanwhile, Columbus is wondering where its next home may be after a report last week that team owner Anthony Precourt may move the franchise to Austin.

“I’ve been in a few situations where there are things going on off the field,” Guzan said. “It definitely can get to players if certain guys aren’t strong enough to tune it out. It might be hanging over their heads. For us, that’s not our concern. Our concern is to win Thursday.”

Advantage: Atlanta United.

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