March 11, 2018 Atlanta: A Atlanta United fan toasts the team as they take on the D.C. United during their home opener in a MLS soccer game on Sunday, March 11, 2018, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Atlanta United vs. Columbus: 4 questions

Atlanta United will host surging Columbus on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The result not only will impact the race for the Supporters’ Shield, but potentially playoff seeding in the Eastern Conference.

Atlanta United leads MLS in points (48), but is being chased by New York Red Bulls (47), NYCFC (47) and Dallas (42). Columbus ranks fourth in the East with 39 points and seems like a lock to make the playoffs. It leads fifth-place Philadelphia by nine points with 10 games remaining.

Andrew Erickson (@AEricksonCD) of the Columbus Dispatch, who has been the go-to reporter for news about the team’s potential move to Austin, Texas, took a few minutes to answer four questions about Sunday’s game.

1. How will the addition of Justin Meram help the offense?

A: Like he did in 2017, Justin Meram provides a threat to score from distance, which the Crew did not have for the first portion of the 2018 season. He plays well with Federico Higuain and has not lost a regular-season game with Pedro Santos on the opposite wing. If Meram can find his form and fitness, his impact to the Crew offense will be significant. The Crew has not had a winger score a goal since Mike Grella’s game winner against the San Jose Earthquakes on April 28. 

2. Columbus has scored one goal in regulation against Atlanta United in their meetings. Why have the Crew struggled to break down Atlanta United's defense? 

A: In Crew SC’s three regular-season games against Atlanta, a common thread has been falling behind early. Atlanta United has scored in the opening half-hour of each game, making it difficult for the Crew, which does not have a strong track record of coming back from deficits, to find spaces between lines. The Crew’s best shot came in the playoff game last October, when an Ola Kamara goal was wiped out by an offside call. The Crew had chances it did not take advantage of, but more importantly it did not yield an early lead. 

3. How will getting Higuain back change the team?

A: Higuain’s presence typically calms the offense, which regularly creates chances but tends to be inefficient with them. His ability to deliver a final pass in the box is something the Crew cannot replicate with another central attacking midfielder or in a 4-4-2 formation. He also plays an important role in delivering set pieces, a key reason for the Crew’s success in the last 10 games of the 2017 season. Higuain appeared a bit rusty in a win over Houston, but should be more fit for Sunday’s game. 

4. What is the matchup to watch, and how do you think it will go? 

A: Zack Steffen vs. the field. The reason the Crew stayed in its 2017 playoff game with Atlanta United was because of Steffen, who made eight saves and came up with a massive performance, both in regulation and in the penalty shootout. It’s hard to envision Josef Martinez not getting a goal, but if Steffen can keep it to just the one, Crew SC will have a chance at a result.

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