Match Preview: Atlanta United vs Columbus Crew

Atlanta United are looking to hit the home stretch of the regular season on a positive note, ending their 15-day break with a big Eastern Conference matchup with the Columbus Crew at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this Sunday. The Five Stripes still hold the lead in the Supporters’ Shield standings but need three points against a strong opponent to hold off New York Red Bulls, who are nipping at their heels with a game in hand.

The match is set to kick off at 4:00 p.m. EST Sunday from Mercedes-Benz Stadium. For those who can’t make the trip, tune in on FOX Sports Southeast or stream the match live via FOX Sports GO. Click here for all the other ways to follow along with the match.

Atlanta United (14-4-6)

The Five Stripes built on last year’s historic inaugural season to surge to the front of the Supporters’ Shield pack over the first half of the season and are unbeaten in five matches as they try to hold off their Eastern Conference competition to the north. Their place in the table is thanks in no small part to Josef Martinez’s historic scoring pace; two more goals last match brought him to a total of 26 on the season, just one behind the single-season MLS record with ten matches still to play.

But Tata Martino said it best after last match –– scoring chances aren’t just falling to Martinez out of the sky, they’re bring created by the other players in the system. Julian Gressel, Tito Villalba, Ezequiel Barco, and the other half of Josef’s fusion celebration, Miguel Almirón, have been the main providers this year, with promising youngsters like Andrew Carleton, Brandon Vazquez and Romario Williams ready to make an impact as well. And it’s working: no one has scored more in Major League Soccer so far this year, and with the city of Atlanta’s ever-present support behind them, they are a scary prospect for any defense in this league on their home pitch.

But a potent attack only gets you so far, and Atlanta United’s defense has been the perfect yin to their attacking yang. Michael Parkhurst and company have the fourth-fewest goals allowed in MLS this season. While the captain continues to play some of the best soccer of his career, he would be the first to point out his constant companions in the back like Leandro González Pirez, Franco Escobar, and Brad Guzan in goal. And crucial to the cause has been Chris McCann’s versatility to slide comfortably in the back line, especially with Mikey Ambrose joining Greg Garza on the long-term injury list earlier this month. That’s also a huge opportunity for Homegrown signing George Bello, with the teenager named in the matchday squad for the first time in his career last week.

Columbus Crew (11-7-6)

Atlanta United took care of business comfortably in the reverse fixture against the Crew in Columbus this year, leaving Ohio with a 2-0 win. But the Crew have hit a nice run of form over the past month, and a three-match win streak has them pushing up to fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings. Gyasi Zardes’ 14 goals have him below only Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Josef Martinez in scoring this year, a resurgent season for the U.S. international after his move from the Galaxy this offseason. And the return of Justin Meram could add a potent new weapon on the Crew’s left flank, as he tries to re-spark the chemistry with his old teammates in midfield: Federico Higuain and Pedro Santos.

They have strong options on the defensive side of the ball as well, with Wil Trapp and Artur forming one of the sturdiest center midfield pairings in MLS. Head Coach Greg Berhalter’s system will have his wingbacks, Harrison Afful ad Milton Valenzuela, pushing forward in the attack, while Jonathan Mensah has been the rock in the center next to a rotation cast of center back partners. And Atlanta United fans know Zack Steffen well, one of the premier goalkeepers in the league waiting on the other side of the defense in the Columbus goal. Playing in a style Tata Martino has praised in the past, the Crew are a challenge for any team. But with the Five Stripes now with three wins out of four in the matchup, they’ll be confident and seeking revenge for the last time the Crew came to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

It’s a meeting of two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, and a chance to send Atlanta United off on their road stretch on a positive note. You won’t want to miss a minute, so tune in to FOX Sports Southeast at 4:00 p.m. EST. For streaming information and all other ways to follow along with the match, click here.