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Atlanta United’s top priority vs. Columbus Crew: Switching on from the start

‘You’re only a few games away from playing in a final. … There’s no reason to not give your effort from the first minute.’

Mar 30, 2019; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Crew defender Jonathan Mensah (4) and Atlanta United forward Romario Williams (9) go for a second half ball at MAPFRE Stadium. (Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports)
Mar 30, 2019; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Crew defender Jonathan Mensah (4) and Atlanta United forward Romario Williams (9) go for a second half ball at MAPFRE Stadium. (Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports)

MARIETTA, Ga. — The last time Atlanta United met the Columbus Crew, the Five Stripes fell behind in the second minute. Against the Charleston Battery in the U.S. Open fourth round last Thursday, Atlanta started slow, and the Battery took a 20th-minute lead.

The Five Stripes and Crew meet again in the Open Cup Round of 16 Tuesday night at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Atlanta manager Frank de Boer said switching on from the game’s opening whistle is his team’s biggest priority.

“In the first two minutes [at Columbus on March 30] we conceded a goal, and then I think we played quite well,” de Boer said at the Children’s Healthcare Training Ground Monday. “We had some good chances.”

Terrible weather and a swimming pool of a pitch impacted the previous contest at the Crew. It is true that Atlanta grew into the game and that USMNT goalkeeper Zack Steffen made some fine saves. But coming out of the locker room unprepared — twice — cost Atlanta the three points. After a lengthy first-half lightning delay, the Five Stripes again failed to match the Crew’s intensity at the restart.

“We already said [during the delay] we don’t want to concede another goal, because then it’s really difficult,” de Boer told reporters. “I think after five, six minutes, we conceded the second goal, and then the game was over, of course. We couldn’t play with the weather circumstances.”

Veteran midfielder Jeff Larentowicz explained that playing in an empty stadium — as Atlanta did in the 3-1 win extra-time over Charleston can affect the mindset of a team used to taking the field in front of 50,000-odd fans at home. The Five Stripes may face the same challenge in the Round of 16.

“It’s tough,” Larentowicz said Monday. “It’s a different mentality. You’re going into an Open Cup game, and when you talk about empty stadiums, I don’t know how many people will be there on Tuesday night. It certainly feels different, but it’s one that you have to get yourself ready for. We’ve all played in games like that.

“You’re only a few games away from playing in a final. We don’t have an MLS game for a week after this one. There’s no reason to not give your effort from the first minute. It’s something that we spoke about even before the Charleston game, but it doesn’t always come through for everybody.”

Josef Martínez, who has five goals in his past three league games, once again will be absent for Atlanta against Columbus. The Venezuelan is away on international duty at the Copa America in Brazil. The Five Stripes went nearly 80 minutes without a goal before leveling against Charleston. Romario Williams started in Martínez’s place against the Battery and netted the 78th-minute equalizer off a corner kick. Brandon Vázquez entered as a substitute and completed the scoring with two goals in the second half of extra-time.

No matter who leads the line in the Round of 16, the Five Stripes will try to stick to their game plan.

“When you’re putting [Martínez] in the XI, you’re counting on him to score, and that’s something that every team wants,” Larentowicz said. “To have him in there is obviously very great.

“We have guys who can score. It doesn’t change our style of play. We’re still trying to get whoever’s playing center forward, or in attacking positions, in front of goal. Guys have the ability to score from there, so I don’t think it necessarily changes that much. We’re trying to do the same things, just with different personnel.”

Barco’s back, Gressel and Villalba are not

Ezequiel Barco, fresh off a standout run of games with Argentina at the Under-20 World Cup in Poland, returned to Atlanta last week. Barco was training with his club team Monday and is available for selection Tuesday night.

Héctor “Tito” Villalba, who hasn’t played since sustaining a knee injury during a loss at the New York Red Bulls on May 19, has been getting treatment in Buenos Aires. De Boer said after the Charleston game Villalba would return to Atlanta “in the coming days.” It isn’t clear if the winger will be ready to return for Atlanta’s June 26 MLS game at Toronto FC.

Julian Gressel has not trained since Atlanta’s win over the Chicago Fire on June 1. That game was Atlanta’s eighth in 28 days, and Gressel looked worse for the wear. The German is dealing with general muscle tightness, but de Boer says he is progressing well. Gressel likely will rejoin the team this Thursday and should be available to play against Toronto.

Setback for Kratz

Kevin Kratz, Atlanta’s other German midfielder, has not been so fortunate on the injury front. Kratz has played one minute in 2019 due to a lingering problem with his left calf. He started and went 45 minutes for Atlanta United 2 on May 25 but has since re-injured the muscle.

“He has to drop back and start all over again,” de Boer said. “We have to wait for what the analysis is going to be, but it’s not looking good for him. It’s not always the same spot, but it’s the same calf injury. He’s really sick of it, of course, because it’s now already 23 weeks or something like that.” 

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