Stopping Zardes, Higuain key for Atlanta United

Columbus Gyasi Zardes has 10 goals this season. (Columbus Crew)
Columbus Gyasi Zardes has 10 goals this season. (Columbus Crew)

Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino knows this about defending Columbus striker Gyasi Zardes and playmaker Federico Higuain.

Stopping them doesn’t start in Atlanta United’s penalty box, a well-worn place after last week’s game at NYCFC. No, Martino, his staff and Atlanta United’s players must focus on the 70 yards before the penalty box because that’s where the trouble will start.

“If the ball gets to Zardes or Higuain we already have a problem,” he said. “They will probably have the ball. We have to make it as hard as possible for them to do what they do best.”

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With Higuain pulling strings and Zardes scoring at a rate that most had not thought possible, Columbus has plowed through the incessant news and noise about possibly relocating to Austin, Texas to go unbeaten in its past nine games.

Their determination, personified by  stoic manager Gregg Berhalter, sets up an MLS Eastern Conference showdown on Wednesday at MAPFRE Stadium. Atlanta United leads the league with 30 points and the most goals scored (31). With Higuain’s seven assists and Zardes’ 10 goals (three behind Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez) Columbus is third in the East with 27 points and is tied for the fewest goals allowed (14).

Counting two preseason games and the playoff game memorably won in a penalty kick shootout by the Crew, Atlanta United has already played Columbus five times, which more than it has any other team. One of those meetings came during this year’s preseason tournament in Charleston, S.C. In that game, a 3-1 win for Columbus, Higuian notched an assist and Zardes proved a handful.

Proving a handful was something that Zardes was no long doing with the L.A. Galaxy, which he signed with as a homegrown player in 2012.

After scoring 16 goals as a striker in 2014, the team couldn’t figure out his best position. He was tried as a striker, wide midfielder and finally a fullback last season before being traded to the Crew during the offseason.

Finally playing the same position week after week, Zardes is blossoming under Berhalter, just as Kei Kamara and Ola Kamara did.

Though Zardes is much taller and probably not as good a dribbler as Martinez, the two score in similar ways, with their heads or with one-touch shots. Atlanta United’s Leandro Gonzalez Pirez said the defenders must communicate to try to contain Zardes.

“Keying on Gyasi is one of the main differences between this year and last year,” said Atlanta United’s Jeff Larentowicz, who played with Zardes in L.A. in 2016. “We have to be aware of him at all times.”