Tools to the Match

Tools to the Match: How Atlanta United extend unbeaten start to MLS season at Columbus  

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Atlanta United heads on the road for the second time in this young MLS season. Coming off a 5-1 victory vs. Portland Timbers last week, the team will look to continue its unbeaten run this weekend at Lower.com Field against Columbus Crew. We are in the midst of a FIFA International break, so both teams will have to deal with some absences in key areas. Atlanta is hit the hardest of any league team with seven call-ups, while Columbus’ three call-ups are all regular players down the spine of the team. Squad depth and adaptability will be on display this weekend. Atlanta is looking to extend its best start to a league season in team history with another three points on the road Saturday night. Let’s take a closer look at the Tools to the Match presented by The Home Depot against Columbus Crew.

Different personnel, same attacking flow

Looking at the attacking numbers through the first four Matchdays in MLS and Atlanta United rank at or near the top in several categories. Tied for the league lead in goals scored (11), best goal differential (+8), most chances created (64), highest possession (57.8) just to name a few. Gonzalo Pineda and his staff have built a cohesive unit throughout preseason that has been clicking in the attacking third early on this season.

On Saturday, Atlanta will be missing a few key players from that attack due to international duty. Most notably, of course, is the early league MVP frontrunner Thiago Almada, who scored his first goal for Argentina in a friendly victory this week. He leads MLS in both goals (4) and assists (4). But Atlanta will still have several attacking threats available for selection. Caleb Wiley has recorded a goal and assist in back-to-back matches. Luiz Araújo has scored in back-to-back matches as well. Atlanta will need big performances from those two in order to bring home another three road points this weekend.

Find ways to disrupt Columbus’ possession game

Columbus will be missing a couple of key players on Saturday as well. Most notably for the home side is the absence of talisman Lucas Zelarayan in midfield and goalkeeper Eloy Room, who has had some spectacular performances against Atlanta United in the past. Zelarayan leads this Columbus team in goals and shots. Cucho Hernandez, who is one of the most dangerous strikers in the league, also will reportedly be sidelined due to injury.

The Crew’s new head coach Wilfried Nancy had excellent success at Montreal with a possession style that always focused on playing out of the back. He is implementing that style in Columbus through the early portion of this season. The Crew rank second in the MLS in terms of possession at 56.1%, trailing only Atlanta. If the Five Stripes can find ways to disrupt that possession game and create turnovers high up the pitch, they will be in excellent shape to bring home three more points. Atlanta has won possession back 26 times in the attacking third of the pitch, which ranks fifth in MLS coming into this weekend.

Continue to create high quality scoring chances and be clinical

One of the team’s focuses coming into the season was to create higher quality scoring opportunities. After four matchdays, Atlanta ranks second in MLS with a 7.06 xG mark. Expected Goals (xG) is one of the newer advanced analytics that assesses the quality of scoring chances a team creates. The team’s total volume of shots continues to rank high (67, 2nd in MLS), but this year the quality of chances has improved noticeably. One of the keys on Saturday night will be to continue to be clinical in the final third when clear-cut opportunities arrive. In the team’s only road match so far this season, Atlanta scored three goals on five shots on target.

Fans can tune in nationally on MLS Season Pass on the Apple TV app on Saturday night at 7:30pm ET when the action kicks off at Lower.com Field. To hear the action on radio, tune into STAR 94 (English) or La Mejor – AM 1600 (Spanish).

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