Tools to the Match: How ATL UTD can conquer the Crew

Atlanta United enters Wednesday’s match coming off a solid 1-1 road result in New York City, and with six straight matches unbeaten away from home, the Five Stripes will hope to continue that form in Columbus. Atlanta took the better of both regular season matchups last season, but the Crew got revenge when they knocked them out of the MLS Cup Playoffs. Both are off to another promising playoff-bound start in 2018 with Atlanta sitting in 1st place in the East and Columbus in 3rd, so Wednesday night’s contest should shape up to be a wild one.

Ahead of this week’s game, we broke down the Tools to the Match presented by The Home Depot.

1) Eyes on Higuain

At the heart of the well-oiled Crew machine is long-time midfielder and household name in Columbus, Federico Higuain. Intelligent, crafty, and fearless, Higuain runs the Crew midfield with poised feet and a clever mind, dancing around the opposition and slicing through the back line with penetrating passes. The Argentine playmaker has become one of the league’s all-time greats at creator–in-chief, and with four goals and seven assists already this season, he joins an exclusive club as one of just three active players to tally 50 goals and 50 assists in MLS. Columbus is a cohesive side and far from a star-driven team, but more often that not, their number 10 is involved in the attack. Staying tight to Higuain and tracking his every move will be key if Atlanta is to keep their road form intact.

2) Gyasi’s Golden Foot

Atlanta’s Josef Martinez is leading the Golden Boot race with 13 on the season, but right on his tail – currently in 2nd place – is Columbus’s Gyasi Zardes with 10 goals. The U.S. international joined the Crew this offseason after spending five seasons with the LA Galaxy as a Homegrown player, but in his 6th MLS season, he’s off to his best one yet. Zardes brings pace, presence and a knack for goal to the front of a possession-oriented Columbus side. And his ability to read the movements of his teammates and latch on to the end of dangerous services and through balls has made him that difference-making final third piece to a consistently strong Gregg Berhalter team. The two top competitors for the Golden Boot will go head to head on Wednesday night, and if Atlanta United wants to keep that lead as well as the hold on the East, they need to snuff out the build-up play before the ball can even get to Zardes in the attacking third.

3) Press High, Press Smart

Five Stripe fans won’t soon forget the side that knocked them out of their first-ever playoff run, and neither will the players, as one of the most intense matchups of the year. Just as Tata Martino has implemented his pass-first mentality in Atlanta, Gregg Berhalter has drilled the system into his men all the same. The Crew are composed out of the back, confident in possession, and from the keeper to the defense to the front line, the squad is full of ball handlers. On Wednesday, Martino’s men will press high and press hard as they always do, in hopes of forcing a mistake from Columbus. But while the match may present a great opportunity to capitalize on mistakes made coming out of the back, Atlanta must be cautious and thorough in their press. Because one gap in the pressure, one man unmarked, one lane left open – that’s all Columbus needs to breakthrough and spark an attack.

Follow the Match:

Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. EST, with the match set to be broadcast on FOX Sports South and streamed on FOX Sports GO. You can listen to the game on the Atlanta United app or through one of our radio partners: 92.9 The Game or, for Spanish-speaking listeners, La Mejor Atlanta. Click here for a full rundown of how to follow along with the game.