United Attack, Conquer Columbus Crew

Columbus’ compact defensive lines made life difficult for the Atlanta attack. Kevin Kilgour/Sports Editor

Atlanta United FC returned home and returned to form June 17 with a much needed 3-1 win against the visiting Columbus Crew SC. The win brings United’s record back up to .500, 6-6-3 on the season, and jumps them ahead two slots in the Eastern Conference standings, where they are now No. 6 with 21 points.

After Atlanta’s last homestand, in which United won two games by a combined score of 7-2, hopes were high that this team would finally find some consistency. Thus, when Atlanta lost its next two road games, June 3 against the Vancouver Whitecaps and June 10 against Chicago Fire, much of their confidence was lost. United leads the league with 31 goals this season, but failed to come away with more than one goal over the entire road trip.

“Whenever you win, you feel good; whenever you don’t, you question yourself,” veteran midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said. “After those two road losses, we needed to get back to basics and there is no easier way to do that than to play at home.”

Two-game losing streak aside, Columbus’ road struggles and defensive shortcomings provided plenty of reason for optimism for United supporters. Entering Saturday’s match, Columbus had allowed the most goals in the Eastern conference (26) and had the most road losses of any MLS team (seven). Pair those weaknesses with Atlanta’s explosive offense and recent home dominance, and this looked like a match made in heaven for United.

Rain delayed the game by just under 30 minutes, yet Atlanta still appeared unprepared for the opening whistle. In the first 10 minutes, costly turnovers resulted in two excellent opportunities on goal for Columbus. However, Atlanta goalkeeper Alec Kann made the save each time, denying Columbus an early lead.

While Columbus had failed to capitalize on their earlier opportunities, Atlanta cashed in on a Columbus mistake in the 16th minute. Pressure from Atlanta midfielder Yamil Asad forced a turnover deep in the Columbus back line, allowing Asad to lay it off softly for cutting forward Tito Villalba, who had an easy finish into the lower left corner of the Crew goal. Asad’s assist gives him eight for the season, tying for the most in the MLS with Toronto midfielder Victor Vazquez.

The Atlanta lead was short-lived. In the 26th minute, a dipping cross found its way to Columbus midfielder Federico Higuain, who nimbly brought the ball down to his feet in a crowded Atlanta penalty box and pushed the ball off his outside foot, just past a lunging Kann. The goal tied the game at one, a score that would hold into halftime.

The first half was riddled with mistakes from both sides, and that trend continued into the second. Whether it was the waterlogged pitch or simply a lack of focus, neither team could get a solid grip on their attack, and both relied on errant passes to generate offense.

“Passing wasn’t sharp tonight,” Atlanta captain and center back Michael Parkhurst said. “Credit to Columbus for making it difficult for us. They dropped back and were very compact, making it difficult for us to play through their lines.”

 

Fans unfurled another pro-United banner prior to Saturday’s match. Kevin Kilgour/Sports Editor

For a moment, it seemed as though the only bright spot of the second half would be the entry of Atlanta forward Josef Martinez. Competing in his first home game since he injured his left quad while playing with Venezuela’s national team in March, the crowd exploded when Martinez was subbed on for Atlanta midfielder Julian Gressel in the 63rd minute.

While the crowd’s energy was at its highest, play on the field remained sloppy and the score was locked at 1-1.

That all changed in the 67th minute when Atlanta midfielder Miguel Almiron showed once again why he is one of the deadliest attackers in MLS. Collecting the ball at midfield following an excellent tackle from Atlanta center back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Almiron put on the afterburners, bursting all the way to the Columbus 18-yard box. Almiron then calmly struck a low roller swiftly into the opposite corner, just between two Crew defenders and beyond the outstretched arm of Columbus goalkeeper Zack Steffen, giving Atlanta a critical 2-1 lead.

“I was a little fortunate on that play,” Almiron said humbly of his eighth goal this season. “It’s not like I tried to perfectly place it in that spot.”

With the slim advantage, Atlanta made a few defensive substitutions, hoping to hold off Columbus through the match’s final 20 minutes. But Atlanta’s offense wasn’t quite finished. In the 88th minute, midfielder Kevin Kratz sent a slick pass into the goalie box to a sitting Martinez, who collected the gift and blasted a screamer into the Crew goal, providing the exclamation point on a much-needed 3-1 victory.

“After the goal that I scored I was a little emotional, because before I came on I heard all the fans applauding me and chanting my name,” Martinez said. “I’m happy to get the goal tonight because we knew that … it was really important to get these three points at home.”

Colombus’ loss brings them to 2-7 on the road, tying them with Real Salt Lake for the most road losses of any team in the MLS. Away games have not been kind to many teams — across the league, the visitors have a 33-98-39 record. Why home teams are performing so well is something that MLS will need to investigate; but for now, home field advantage remains the single greatest factor of most MLS games this season.

This is a busy stretch for Atlanta, with three games over the span of eight days. They travel to last-place D.C. United June 21 before returning home for a matchup with western foe Colorado Rapids June 24.

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