The number four seed Atlanta United (15-9-10) will host their first-ever MLS Cup Playoff match as they face sixth-seeded Columbus Crew (16-12-6) in the single-elimination knockout round at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Thursday night. Atlanta took the better of the previous two regular season meetings between the two clubs, but playoffs is a clean slate and the winner earns themselves a spot in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Ahead of Thursday’s matchup, we broke down the Tools to the Match presented by Home Depot:
1) Eyes on Higuain
Perhaps no one has become more of a household name in Columbus than Argentine DP Federico Higuain. Since joining the club in 2012, his craftiness, vision and poise on the ball in the center of the park have helped him record 50 goals and 51 assists –– including a goal and a pair of assists in the 2015 playoffs that helped the Crew to the MLS Cup Final. The veteran may be 32 years old but is still elusive with an even sharper mind, and his 14 assists this season marks a personal best. Atlanta will need to keep tabs on their maestro if they’re to keep Columbus out of the net.
2) The Return of #10
Five Stripes fans rocked Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday when they saw their Paraguayan playmaker Miguel Almirón return to their beloved, red, black & gold for the first time since September. Dubbed the heartbeat of the team by his teammates, Almirón brings energy, class, pace and skill to the center of the field and has proven he’s one of the top players in the league. His nine goals and 14 assists made him number one on the MLS 24 under 24 list and earned a worthy spot on the league’s 2017 MVP ballot. Having him back healthy on the roster will be key for the expansion side as they journey through their first playoff run.
3) Home Hype
Atlanta United pushed for the home-field advantage because of their impressive home form – only one loss in their last 14 – as well as their league-leading attendance numbers. But MLS history has proven that playoffs often don’t bode well for the traveling teams. Particularly in the opening single-elimination knockout round, home teams hold a record of 13-3 over the past four years. Though Columbus is familiar with ATL UTD and their playing style, they’ve never faced an Atlanta side in Mercedes-Benz Stadium where the team has been nearly unbeatable, scoring 3.25 goals a game. Seeing as Thursday will mark the club’s first-ever playoff match, the Atlanta faithful will be far from silent.
How to follow
You can still get tickets to the match here but if you can't be there in person, catch all the action from Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday at 7:00 p.m. EST on ESPN2, UniMás or WATCH ESPN. Click here for all details on how to follow the match.