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Playoffs: Atlanta United vs. Columbus Crew | 3 Things to Watch For

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Listen to the latest episode of Peach and Pitch here:

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Think to back to what you were doing on the evening of March 4th. In less than 24 hours, Atlanta United would play their inaugural MLS match, an attritive 2-1 loss that somehow still felt like a win – in Civilization parlance, a cultural victory. Yet on that quiet Saturday night, the mystery of Atlanta’s MLS fortune still loomed in the hearts and minds of every red and black blooded American in the Southeast. The hopes and dreams of an entire region rested upon the backs of 11 men who had never played with one another in a competitive environment. Would we bear the cross of Atlanta sports mediocrity? Would the excitement wane in the event of an opening defeat? How many Tropicalias were emptied in anxious wait? How many All-Star Specials found their way into porcelain thrones the state over? (In fairness, you don’t have to be nervous for this to happen.) The flame was then but a candle.

And here we are now, on the eve of watching our Atlanta United, the Five Stripes, the Sultans of Sweetwater, contest a playoff game on home turf. We play host to the emotionally beleaguered, yet tactically strong (Tiotal Football, if you’re ever in Athens, I owe you a beer) Columbus Crew. It’s a high-stakes, winner-takes-all match, and Atlanta United will have no margin for error. We were gut-wrenchingly close to pulling the rug out from underneath Supporters’ Shield winners Toronto FC. I’ll shoulder the responsibility: I snapchatted a picture of Giovinco and captioned it “the atomic ant.” Should have known that would lead to some weird nuclear fusion bullshit.

Is this what Oppenheimer had in mind?

Nevertheless, United are raring to bust loose. The resoluteness of Alexander Bono between the sticks belied the quality of our chances, but Crew big men Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams will likely have something to say about that. Unbeaten in ten, Columbus – from the city’s perspective – are playing for their MLS lives. Thursday will be a slugfest.

Let’s calm our pre-game Jittery Joe’s by looking at three factors that could spell the difference between a place in the conference semis or the rebirth of 28-3 memes.

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Tit.

For tat.

Tit.

For tat, and tat, and tat, and tat, and tat, and tat, and tat.

Per American Soccer Analysis, Columbus’ attacking trio of Ola Kamara, Frederico Higuain, and Justin Meram are combining for an impressive 1.62 xG+xA a game. By comparison, Miguel Almiron, Tito Villalba, and Yamil Asad register 1.27 (slightly skewed by Miggy’s sporadic injuries). Though I’d be loathe to sit through the agony of constant lead changes, I expect there’s a high chance this playoff game devolves into a saloon style shootout. Kamara has been known to wreak havoc on opposing defenses, calling upon his hold up play and tricky runs to carve up unwitting defenders. Michael Parkhurst’s inclusion in the Atlanta starting 11 will be a game-time decision, leaving Tata Martino with somewhat of a tactical conundrum: reemploy the use of that three-backer that saw McCann and Gressel essentially tucking in as high-stationed wing-backs, or stick to his 4-2-3-1 guns?

On the other side of the pitch, Columbus will be tasked with containing the prolific Atlanta United offense that ESPN’s Caught Offside podcast just called the best in MLS. The Crew prefer to sit four across the back, and in their last game against NYCFC, focused on patient attacks rooted in incisive balls from the back. With all this extra activity in the defensive third, Josef Martinez needs to get his sulky, uninspired-marking ass into gear and stir the pot. Several of Atlanta’s goals against Columbus in the previous two pairings came off of sloppy play in the back. Let lightning strike thrice.

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Photo credit: Getty Images

The return of Miggy Stardust only lasted for 30 minutes, but it reminded us just how pivotal he is to Atlanta’s attacking buildup (and the fans’ emotional well-being). He started the move that led to Josef Martinez’s goal, drifting towards the left, gaining the ball, and immediately feeding it long and wide to Villalba.

United have only won one in our last five without Almiron starting, going goalless in two of those games (vs. New York & New England). Make no mistake, Julian Gressel is having himself a Rookie of the Year caliber season, but his 7.8 xG+xA and 35 key passes are not perfect proxies for Miguel’s respective 13.8 and 51. You’re likely painfully aware that the Paraguayan Panther is prone to pounce on every perspicacious preponderance he pleases (I’ll help you out: the appropriate insult is “F*** you, ES-H.P.-N Lovecraft”), and having him at the helm once again could steady what’s at times been a wayward attack. Wil Trapp is adept at cutting off passing lanes, but if called upon to go toe-to-toe with Miguelito…Well, the Paraguayans can dance:

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Resurgence killing the Crew with kindness. Savvy.

Check out last week’s episode of Peach and Pitch for a more in-depth breakdown of the controversy in Columbus, but for now, suffice to say they are getting screwed by their owner, who is using the city’s refusal to build a new stadium as a convenient excuse to relocate the Crew to Austin, which is a total non sequitur. I’m wont to invoke Jack Black’s rant from School of Rock:

And there used to be a way to stick it to the Man. It was called a soccer specific stadium, but guess what, oh no, the Man ruined that, too, with a little thing called PSV*!

*(Precourt Sports Ventures)

It’s difficult to say whether or not the players themselves will be overly affected by this development – it certainly didn’t seem to detract from their play against NYCFC. But you’d have to imagine the Crew organization is currently in a state of disarray, and regardless of how disparate a club’s parts are, chaos in the front office can spill over onto the pitch. The other side of this coin is that the Columbus supporters are fighting to legitimize the team’s presence in Ohio. Like the results of a Kardashian personality quiz, expect the Crew to be emotional.

And there you have Peach and Pitch’s three (not so salient) things to watch for as Atlanta United play the Columbus Crew. Kick-off is at 7:00 p.m. ET on ESPN 2. For a morning shot of Atlanta United straight to the cajones, tune into 90.5 FM at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow (or catch the live stream here) as Peach and Pitch wax unpoetic about the playoff picture. I’ll be telecommuting from sunny St. Simon’s Island, which means technical mishaps will abound (all for your listening pleasure). Vamos ATL!

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