Tools to the Match: How ATL UTD can hit the ground running from their break

Atlanta United (14-4-6) is champing at the bit to get back on the field after their week off from MLS action, especially with a packed house at Mercedes-Benz Stadium coming up this weekend. Their opponents, the Columbus Crew (11-7-6), are rising up the Eastern Conference standings and will remember the last time they came to Atlanta. But the Five Stripes have a lead of their own to protect in the Eastern Conference and will be looking for a bit of revenge after their playoff exit last year.

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

Zone in on Zardes

Gyasi Zardes has turned his career around since his offseason move from the L.A. Galaxy, ranking among the MLS elite in goalscoring this year. Only behind three other players in the Golden Boot race, Zardes has been the tip of the Columbus spear, a poacher in the box with a lethal first-time finish. With three goals in his past three games, Zardes is in form and a major reason for the Crew’s rise up the Eastern Conference ladder over the past month. Like his striking counterpart in Atlanta, Zardes is the finishing touch to an attacking system. If the Five Stripes can cut off service to the U.S. international and keep track of his whereabouts in the penalty box, it will go a long way to shutting down their attack.

Clog Up the Midfield

The most important player to stop on the Columbus side is their creative spark in the middle, Federico Higuain. Higuain is one of the most creative passers in the league and will be eager to rekindle his relationship with Justin Meram, who just recently made his return from Orlando to the Crew’s left wing. Meanwhile, Pedro Santos adds speed to the opposite flank and Wil Trapp and Artur combine for one of the stronger center midfield pairings in MLS, giving the Argentine passer plenty of weapons at his disposal. But Higuain is often the spark for it all, so it will be paramount for the Atlanta United engine room –– players like Jeff Larentowicz or Eric Remedi as well as their teammates –– to put constant pressure on him when he’s on the ball. Higuain is a player whom you don’t want to allow time on the ball, so the Five Stripes’ defensive discipline will be important to shut down the Argentine attacking midfielder.

Get Behind the Wingbacks

Gregg Berhalter’s passing system asks for a lot of offensive contribution from his outside backs. Milton Valenzuela and Harrison Afful are constantly pushing forward into the attack, linking up with the wingers to find space to send in the crosses that Zardes is known to feast on. It puts pressure on opposing fullbacks and will require Atlanta United’s more attack-minded players to get back and help avoid numerical disadvantages. If they can do that, they can help neutralize the wide threat, and possibly find opportunities for space behind the Columbus fullbacks to hit them with one of Atlanta United’s signature counterattacks. It was on just one of those plays that Tito Villalba struck in the reverse fixture in Columbus earlier this year.

Follow the Match:

Kickoff is set for 4:00 p.m. EST on Sunday, with the match set to be broadcast on FOX Sports Southeast and streamed on the FOX Sports GO app. 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.