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Atlanta United wary of Columbus Crew attack

Hector "Tito" Villalba dribbles during Atlanta United's game against the Philadelphia Union on March 17, 2019, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.(Karl L. Moore/Atlanta United)
Hector "Tito" Villalba dribbles during Atlanta United's game against the Philadelphia Union on March 17, 2019, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.(Karl L. Moore/Atlanta United)

MARIETTA, Ga. — Gerardo “Tata” Martino was always a fan of how the Columbus Crew played under Gregg Berhalter. It was an admiration so sincere, the former Atlanta United manager expressed regret over his plan to sully a game against Columbus last August with time-wasting tactics, a reluctant response to what he perceived was poor refereeing. Both teams have new managers in 2019, but the reverence is still there from the Atlanta side of things.

“We have to respect the Columbus Crew,” Frank de Boer told reporters Thursday when asked about this week’s game. “I think it’s one of the nicest teams to watch, especially in the center with Artur, [Will] Trapp, with [Federico] Higuain. They are really quality players. It’s all about those three.”

The Five Stripes (0-1-2, 2 points) travel for a meeting with the Crew at Mapfre Stadium, Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. ET.  

For Atlanta, it is an opportunity to start anew. The dream of becoming the first Major League Soccer side to win the Concacaf Champions League is on hold, dashed for now by Monterrey. De Boer still waits for his first league win as manager, and fans, who have known nothing but success since the team launched in 2017, are getting antsy. Thirty-one games remain in the MLS season, and the Five Stripes are five points out of first place in the Eastern Conference. A win Saturday would immediately cast this difficult campaign in a much better light.

That respect for Columbus (2-1-1, 7 points), now managed by Caleb Porter, is shared by de Boer’s players. During media sessions throughout the week, they consistently dropped the Crew name as reason why performing on a higher level will be required to get a result. Higuain and forward Gyasi Zardes, returning from two quality appearances with the United States men’s national team, are of particular concern to Atlanta’s defenders.

Zardes, who scored for the U.S. thanks to a big deflection against Ecuador and provided an excellent assist on Christian Pulisic’s strike against Chile, has two goals in three games for the Crew this season. Higuain has one assist in four games, and he is 10th in the league with eight key passes, according to American Soccer Analysis’ data. Key passes are defined as those that lead directly to shots.

“You’ve got to get close to [Higuain] and try and make the game difficult for him,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan told Pro Soccer USA Tuesday. “Ultimately, it’s going to be on us to apply pressure, to not only him, but other guys as well and make it difficult to pick a pass, because they’ve got quality players that, if you give them time and space on the ball, they’ll find the open man. At that point it’s too late, because they’re already running at you with numbers and then you’re scrambling.

“We’ve got to try to make sure that when we’re close to the ball, we don’t apply just passive pressure, that we actually put them under pressure and make it difficult.”

The bigger challenge for Atlanta may be unleashing its attack, which amassed 140 goals over the 2017 and ’18 regular seasons, but has two in three MLS games this year. Forward Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez will miss the game with a minor hamstring injury that he picked up while playing with Argentina last week. There could be a silver lining to El Pity’s absence. He has struggled to adapt with Atlanta and has not looked fully match fit after a short offseason. Another bye week is on the schedule between the Five Stripes’ contest against Columbus and their next game at the New England Revolution. Sitting this one out will allow Martínez to work his way into shape.

With Martínez missing, Héctor “Tito” Villalba figures to play a big role Saturday. Villalba, now on the fringe of Atlanta’s first-choice 11 after signing as the club’s first designated player in 2016, has scored five regular-season goals in four games against the Crew, all victories.

“I think we have to be organized, and we also have to try to assimilate to the Atlanta United that we were last year,” Villalba told Pro Soccer USA though an interpreter Thursday. “I think against a team like Columbus, that’s very good technically and likes to have possession of the ball, you have to try to attack fast and try to exploit the spaces behind their back line.”

The Crew’s penchant for keeping the ball gives de Boer a choice to make. He is known for obsessing over possession and said Thursday if he could guarantee having 70 percent every game, “I will sign for it.” Atlanta has averaged 66 percent in the league this season but has yet to win. Allowing Columbus to possess and attempting to strike quickly on counter attacks may be the best way for the Five Stripes to create the sort of quality chances that have been missing. It would require de Boer to step away from his tactical identity.

“I like the idea to have a lot of ball possession,” de Boer said, “but I prefer more chances and less ball possession if we need it.”

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