Massive Scouting Report: Atlanta United

After a disappointing defeat on the road to New York Red Bull last weekend, the Columbus Crew returns home for “Battle at the Death Star” night at Field and a matchup with Atlanta United.

Due too international call-ups and a few key injuries, the Crew will be forced to use a heavily-rotated squad in this match. Goalkeeper Eloy Room (Curaçao), center back Milos Degenek (Australia) and attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayan (Armenia) will all miss this match while with their respective national teams. Midfielder Kevin Molino and forward Cucho Hernandez are also both out with injuries.

Thus, the Crew and head coach Wilfried Nancy will put their depth to the test against Atlanta, a team that enters the match unbeaten and on top of the Eastern Conference. United will be missing some key pieces as well, so this game may not look like it could have if these teams were at full strength.

Let’s take a look at this matchup.

Atlanta United at a Glance:

Record: 3-0-1, 29 points

League Form: W-W-D-W

Leading Scorer: Thiago Almada (4)

Assist Leader: Thiago Almada (4)

Player to Watch: Caleb Wiley

Luckily for Columbus, Atlanta’s best player, Thiago Almada, will miss this match on international duty for Argentina. However, the Crew will still have its hands full in this match thanks in large part to 18-year-old American midfielder Caleb Wiley.

Wiley has impressed for Atlanta so far in 2023 with three goals and two assists in just four matches. Wiley typically features on the left wing for the Five Stripes and has proven to be a handful for opposing back lines. An efficient finisher, Wiley has also shown an ability to play the final pass from these wide areas to set up his teammates.

Without Almada, Wiley will need to shoulder a lot of the responsibility for the Atlanta attack on Saturday.

How Atlanta United plays:

At the beginning of the year, some MLS pundits claimed that United head coach Gonzalo Pineda was coaching for his job in Atlanta. He has certainly risen to the occasion as Atlanta is unbeaten so far and has scored 11 goals in just four matches. While Pineda has certainly gotten the most out of Almada, Wiley and others, his tactics play a huge part in the Five Stripes’ success.

Usually employing a 4-2-3-1 formation, United relies heavily on maintaining possession to control the tempo of the game. Typically, Atlanta looks to move the outside backs high up the field when in possession. In doing so, the Five Stripes are able to move their dangerous attacking players like Almada, Wiley and Luis Araujo into advanced central areas. Almada and Araujo look to get on the ball and either drive at the defense or pass the ball to their advanced outside backs to switch the point of attack.

This movement and shape make Atlanta hard to defend. If United wins the ball near midfield, they team looks to counter attack as quickly as possible and let the attacking players run into the space behind the opponent’s backline.

Even with Almada out of the lineup this week, don’t expect the Five Stripes’ attack to change all that much.

Defensively, Atlanta is likely to use similar tactics to most of Columbus’ opponents, sitting in a mid-block to be compact and limit the Crew’s space between their lines to progress the ball forward. United will also have some sort of trigger to initiate a press to try and win the ball back. This will often be when a certain player, who Pineda and his staff believe can be rattled, is on the ball.

How the Crew can win:

Nancy was pretty guarded in his pre-match press conference about what changes he will make for this match. Regardless, one thing is clear, there will be new players in the starting lineup that will be asked to rise to the occasion on Saturday.

These players, like Gustavo Vallecilla, who Nancy did say will start on Saturday, will be asked to be ready physically, tactically and mentally to compete with one of the best teams in the East with hardly any time on the field in the first four matches. These players will need to pass this test if the Crew is going to take three points on Saturday.

Without Hernandez and Zelarayan, the Black & Gold must find others to step up in the attack. United won’t be scared of coming to Columbus and playing aggressively, so it’s like the Crew will need to score goals. It’s been a struggle for the offense to create chances this year and missing Zelarayan, the primary chance-creator, isn’t likely to make that easier. Nancy will need to be creative with how Columbus attacks Atlanta to get another three points at home.

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