Atlanta United looks to carry momentum into Game 3 on Sunday

Atlanta United defender Caleb Wiley (26) battles for posesion against Columbus Crew defender Mohamed Farsi (23) during the second half against Columbus Crew in Game 2 of a first-round MLS playoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. 
 Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Atlanta United defender Caleb Wiley (26) battles for posesion against Columbus Crew defender Mohamed Farsi (23) during the second half against Columbus Crew in Game 2 of a first-round MLS playoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. Miguel Martinez /

Now comes the hard part for Atlanta United.

After extending its best-of-three playoff series to its finale with Tuesday’s 4-2 win against Columbus, the Five Stripes must carry that aggressive play and tactical discipline into Sunday’s showdown. Field – Columbus’ home – is a mostly appropriate name because it has been the site of two of Atlanta United’s worst games this season. In those matches, both losses by a combined score of 8-1, Atlanta United totaled three shots.

“It‘s all to play for in round three,” captain Brad Guzan said. “So we’re out there with confidence, with belief and hopefully looking to get a result that puts into the semifinal.”

There will be one 5-foot, 7-inch difference between Atlanta United in Game 3 compared with the regular-season match played there March 25 and last week’s Game 1. That difference is Thiago Almada. He was with Argentina, one of several Atlanta United players who were called up by their national teams, for the March match. Almada, a finalist for league MVP, missed the first playoff match because of a red card he received on Decision Day at Cincinnati.

Without Almada, along with Giorgos Giakoumakis and Miles Robinson, Atlanta United created only one chance in the first match, a 6-1 loss. The lone goal was scored by Brooks Lennon. With everyone except Almada, Atlanta United still managed to create only the one chance in the 2-0 loss in the first playoff match.

With Almada back for Game 2, Atlanta United created 13 chances and put seven of its 14 shots on goal.

Manager Gonzalo Pineda explained that having Almada back in the center of the formation as an attacking midfielder helped break Columbus’ pressure. Pineda said Almada was disciplined on defense. He was perfect, Pineda said. Almada got a reward with the fourth goal, his 12th this season to go with a league-leading 19 assists.

“It was amazing,” Pineda said. “He had to do it because we missed him in the last game.”

Pineda said there will be some tactical tweaks for Game 3. He expects the same from Columbus, which was held to four shots on goal. It will be important for the players to continue to maintain their aggressiveness and awareness without allowing themselves to be pulled apart by a Columbus team that is very good at building attacks from deep within its own half. The Crew led MLS in goals scored (67) during the regular season, averaging almost two per game.

“Listen, it’s 1-1 (in the series), and the idea is to see what we need to improve and what we need to do better knowing that we did good stuff because this is not easy to play here, as you know, against a good team and really good players also,” Columbus manager Wilfried Nancy was quoted as saying by the Crew. “We are going to analyze everything, and we’ll be ready in a few days.”

Another key for Atlanta United’s defense is to stay on top of Cucho Hernandez, who has scored three of Columbus’ goals in the playoffs. Two came against the run of play when the Crew took advantage of Atlanta United turnovers. The third came on a penalty kick that was helped by another turnover.

“The first game against Columbus, we didn’t show our quality, we didn’t show the face of the team,” midfielder Tristan Muyumba said. “We just have to keep the this game, to watch the this game, watch what we did great and and try to make the same game Sunday.”

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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule

Feb. 25 Atlanta United 2, San Jose Earthquakes 1

March 4 Atlanta United 1, Toronto FC 1

March 11 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte FC 0

March 18 Atlanta United 5, Portland 1

March 25 Columbus 6, Atlanta United 1

April 1 Atlanta United 1, New York Red Bulls 0

April 8 Atlanta United 1, New York City FC 1

April 15 Atlanta United 2, Toronto FC 2

April 23 Atlanta United 2, Chicago 1

April 29 Nashville SC 3, Atlanta United 1

May 6 Inter Miami CF 2, Atlanta United 1

May 13 Charlotte 3, Atlanta United 1

May 17 Atlanta United 4, Colorado 0

May 20 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 3

May 27 Atlanta United 1, Orlando 1

May 31 Atlanta United 3, New England 3

June 7 Atlanta United 0, LAFC 0

June 10 Atlanta United 3, D.C. United 1

June 21 Atlanta United 2, New York City 2

June 24 New York Red Bulls 4, Atlanta United 0

July 2 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 0

July 8 Atlanta United 1, Montreal 0

July 12 New England 2, Atlanta United 1

July 15 Orlando City 2, Atlanta United 1

July 25 Miami 4, Atlanta United 0 in Leagues Cup

July 29 Cruz Azul 1 (5), Atlanta United (4) 1 in Leagues Cup

Aug. 20 Atlanta United 2, Seattle 0

Aug. 26 Atlanta United 4, Nashville 0

Aug. 30 Cincinnati 2, Atlanta United 1

Sept. 2 Atlanta United 2, FC Dallas 2

Sept. 16 Atlanta United 5, Inter Miami 2

Sept. 20 Atlanta United 1, D.C. United 1

Sept. 23 Atlanta United 4, Montreal 1

Oct. 4 Philadelphia 3, Atlanta United 2

Oct. 7 Atlanta United 1, Columbus 1

Oct. 21 Atlanta United 2, Cincinnati 2

Nov. 1 Columbus 2, Atlanta United 0

Nov. 7 Atlanta United 4, Columbus 2