Decision Day marked the end of the MLS regular season, but just the beginning of the journey towards MLS Cup. Entering as the fourth seed, Atlanta United (15-9-10) will host their first-ever playoff match on Thursday night against a familiar opponent in the fifth-seeded Columbus Crew (16-12-6). ATL UTD emerged victorious in the two previous meetings this year outscoring the Crew 5-1 in those matches. However, both teams have finished the year strong and like the players have said themselves, the slate is wiped clean because playoffs are a completely different beast.
As Atlanta compete in their first-ever playoff match in just their first year in existence, Thursday night’s matchup will be one you won’t want to miss. You can secure your ticket here, but if you can’t make it to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, catch all the action starting at 7:00 p.m. EST on ESPN2 or UniMás.
#4 Seed - Atlanta United (15-9-10)
An expansion side trekking through its inaugural season, Atlanta United have taken the league by storm both on and off the field. Averaging 48,200 in attendance (#1 in MLS), finishing 4th in the Supporters’ Shield race, scoring 70 goals (#2 in MLS) and becoming the first expansion side to qualify for playoffs since 2009, their 2017 journey is not yet finished. Sunday, Atlanta topped off the regular season with a 2-2 draw against Supporters’ Shield winners Toronto FC which officially clinched a home playoff match for ATL UTD.
While they started the year off strong for a newly assembled side and gained valuable points in a heavy stretch of road games, their second half of their season has been truly remarkable. Atlanta have only lost two of their 17 matches to end the year and have only dropped one of their last 14 at home, scoring three goals per game across that stretch.
Up front, their young South American contingent comprised of Josef Martinez, Yamil Asad, Tito Villalba and Miguel Almirón have spearheaded the high-flying Atlanta attack to their incredible goal tally that ranks fifth all-time in MLS. And on Sunday Five Stripes fans were elated to see their front line reunited as the Paraguayan playmaker Almirón returned to the field after missing the previous five matches with a hamstring injury.
While their prowess in the final third has dominated the headlines all year long, their effort and performance on the other side of the ball can’t be overlooked. Led by U.S. international goalkeeper Brad Guzan and team captain Michael Parkhurst, Atlanta have recorded seven clean sheets in their last ten matches and boast a +30 regular season goal differential, ranking fourth-best all-time in MLS.
#5 Seed - Columbus Crew (16-12-6)
Despite dropping the first two meetings with Atlanta, Columbus are arguably the hottest team in the league headed into the postseason. Unbeaten in their last 10 league matches, the Crew nearly jumped to a second-place finish on Sunday, just one goal short of beating now second-seeded NYCFC.
A key catalyst of their success is found in the Columbus midfield in long-term Crew member Federico Higuain. The clever Argentine DP started the year as strong as he has over the past few seasons, but has hit an incredible run of form as of late. Notching seven assists in his first 22 matches, Higuain has now recorded that same number in his last four games. Recently extending his contract through 2018 in Columbus, he’s truly making every year count with the club he calls home as his 14 assists this season marks a personal best.
Also leading the lines for Columbus has been midfielder Justin Meram. The Iraqi international, who has 13 goals and seven assists so far, is ingrained in the Columbus side that has established their identity as owning one of the most attractive styles of play in the league. Other important pieces for the Crew to keep an eye on include Columbus Homegrown and team captain Wil Trapp, a vital cog in the midfield for the black and yellow, as well as front man and Norwegian international Ola Kamara who leads the team with 18 goals.
Columbus will be entering Thursday’s match with a chip on their shoulder and ready to face a familiar opponent. Not only with a chance at revenge and an opportunity to spoil Atlanta’s magical year-one run, the Crew are looking to redeem themselves in the chase for the Cup after falling in the final at home to Portland in 2015.
- WATCH ESPN