Having Thiago Almada back isn’t a guarantee for Atlanta United success

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Simply having Thiago Almada back may not be an all-purpose solution to Atlanta United defeating Columbus in Game 2 and staying alive in its best-of-three MLS playoff series.

Here’s why: With Almada, when the teams met three weeks ago at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta United scored one goal. It took 10 shots, putting four on goal. It created eight chances.

Those aren’t confidence-inspiring numbers.

But they certainly are better than what the team did in losing Game 2-0 on Wednesday at Lower.com Field. Without Almada, who couldn’t play because he received a red card in the season finale, the team set a franchise low with one shot. It tied a franchise low by not putting that shot on goal. It created only one chance.

“We will have Thiago back, we will be at Mercedes-Benz Stadium we will be strong,” manager Gonzalo Pineda said. “We have to be on the front foot. It’s a life-or-death match, and we have to go all in.”

The team set up in a formation using three centerbacks and three central midfielders to try to clog the inner channels that Columbus likes to use. It worked defensively for the game’s first 45 minutes. But the offense struggled throughout, even when Pineda switched back to using only two centerbacks in the second half.

Ronald Hernandez was selected as one of the centerbacks because Pineda said he thought he would be able to move up the field and take advantage of his passing ability. That didn’t happen. Hernandez also struggled defensively. He couldn’t do enough to stop Cucho Hernandez from shooting on Columbus’ first goal and was called for the penalty in the second half that Hernandez converted to give his team a 2-0 lead.

Xande Silva was supposed to play in a quasi-attacking midfielder role underneath Giorgos Giakoumakis. Silva sometimes drifted out wide to the left, which is where he normally plays, leaving Giakoumakis to have to come back into the midfield to try to be a passing option to break the Crew’s press. Whether in the middle or out wide, Silva struggled to positively impact the match. It was the fourth consecutive match in which he was not sharp.

Pineda offered a few more explanations for why the offense was so poor Wednesday. He said the team had chances to shoot but failed to do so. He said at times they were indecisive with movements or their passing. There were a few times in the first half that Brooks Lennon was sprinting down the right side into space, but his teammates either didn’t see him or wouldn’t try the pass.

“Yes, Thiago helps with how many people he attracts, and that creates spaces for others maybe,” Pineda said. “But yeah, I think it’s an area we have to do better.”

The lack of impact couldn’t be explained by the players.

“Honestly, I’m really disappointed with how the attack played out tonight,” Saba Lobjanidze said. “But it’s still just the first game of the series. We have the second game coming up. We have to keep our heads up and continue working.”

How could having Almada back help?

First, he’s very good at taking free kicks. It was his corner kick that Miles Robinson headed in for the tying goal in the 1-1 draw three weeks ago. He’s also scored multiple times from free kicks this season, which is something Columbus would have to be mindful of when defending him from 30 yards and closer.

Second, he led the league in assists (19) because he sees passes that others don’t, and he can complete them. Almada has been good at finding Lennon in those deep spaces, for example.

Third, teams must pick and choose when to try to press him because if he dribbles or passes past them, Atlanta United could have a numbers advantage in its attack.

“If I had a magic wand to wave it around, and all of a sudden we’re going to go and create 15 chances and then obviously I’d do that, but that’s not how it works,” captain Brad Guzan said. “That’s not how professional sports work. And we’ve got to make sure we win.”

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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