Crew will call on MLS Cup experience to help stifle Atlanta's speedy attack
With Major League Soccer's postseason getting underway on Wednesday, we look ahead to the Eastern Conference's fourth-seeded Atlanta United hosting Columbus Crew SC. Graham Parker breaks down what should be a knockout-round thriller and assesses how each club can reach the conference semifinals.
Speed and organization. Tata Martino's team is thrilling to watch at its best and overwhelming to play against, especially when its new home, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, is rocking with huge crowds, as it has been since the beginning of Atlanta's already impressive debut season a few months ago.
Critics of MLS and the U.S. national team might want to note that Miguel Almiron has only bolstered his international credentials with his performances as the creative force of the team for both Atlanta and Paraguay, while Josef Martinez has been unplayable in front of goal at times. If Almiron is back to match sharpness, Atlanta will be hard to stop.
That defense can be got at. Individual parts such as Greg Garza and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez would not be out of place on any MLS Cup contender, while MLS veteran Michael Parkhurst has led by example as captain, not to mention the fact that Brad Guzan joined as goalkeeper halfway through the season.
However, teams prepared to impose themselves on Atlanta have had luck isolating or splitting the center-backs and exposing the goal. Also, those same defenders have been masters of borderline fouls all season: able to get away without yellow cards until deep into games, to the point that they can take tactical bookings for the team late. But if reputation catches up with them and a strict referee issues cards earlier, Atlanta could have much less margin for error in the closing stages.
Why they'll win
It's at home, and the team is too talented not to. The sense of occasion generated at the stadium will fire up Atlanta from the first whistle, and a goal in the first 20 minutes could end up swinging the tie decisively in the hosts' favor.
Momentum then, but also nous. The team might be untested in the playoffs, but Martino would put his big-game experience up against that of any coach in the league. Even if the team finds itself in an anxious position late, the outcome won't hinge on Martino freezing or making a rash mistake.
Columbus Crew SC
Just an all-around, well-drilled group whose character has been forged and tested under Gregg Berhalter through adversities that could have broken a lesser group. They have an under-celebrated playmaker in Federico Higuain, goal-scoring class in Ola Kamara and, crucially, defensive solidity epitomized by Jonathan Mensah. But more than any one individual, Columbus Crew SC have the institutional knowledge of themselves and, of course, the playoff process. It's that unbeaten run stretching back to Aug. 5 that could be Crew SC's ace: The team has the best record in Major League Soccer for the last third of the season.
Crew SC's owner, Anthony Precourt, picked a helluva time to float moving the team to Austin. The PR fallout could hardly have been unexpected, but the keeping of fans' season-ticket money collected before the news broke and the general optics of Precourt's apparent longstanding intention to move the team to Texas have been a terrible look and a distraction for the team. They have survived self-inflicted wounds before -- see the Higuain/Kei Kamara fallout -- but team-wide uncertainty about the future is no natural platform for a playoff run.
Why they'll win
Regardless of external stresses, this is not a team that will freeze on an "event" night in Atlanta, and if it can stay patient through the early stages, Crew SC can trouble Atlanta's defense, provided Kamara is operating at peak efficiency.
Atlanta will be fired up by a home crowd and its own default tendency to start games in turbo mode, but if Crew SC can weather that storm, home advantage might turn into something more oppressive for the hosts. A tight first half and a Columbus goal opening the scoreline could make this very interesting. But no matter the game state, Crew SC have the experience to manage it.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.