By Chris Smith.
Atlanta United’s hopes of making the MLS Cup Playoffs were ended as they fell to a 2-1 defeat against Columbus Crew on Sunday.
Already reliant on other results, the Five Stripes knew that even all three points may not have been enough on the day. In the end, they were unable to recover from strikes from Lucas Zelarayan and Gyasi Zardes either side of half-time, with Marcelino Moreno’s penalty a mere consolation.
So, what did we learn from the match at Mapfre Stadium?
1. A Cruel Five Minutes Ends It For Atlanta
Sure, Atlanta United made a fist of it as the second half wore on, but this game effectively swung in favour of the Crew within a five-minute period midway inside the first half.
In the 29th minute, the Five Stripes thought they had a penalty when referee Ismail Elfath pointed to the spot after Jon Gallagher appeared to be brought down by Columbus goalkeeper Eloy Room. However, VAR recommended Elfath take a look at the incident and the decision was overturned with Gallagher seemingly losing his balance before making contact with Room. It was the kind of challenge where you would be seething if a penalty was given against you, but equally angry if you didn’t get one yourself.
But things quickly got worse for Atlanta as, with the dust still settling from the VAR call, the Crew broke down the other end of the pitch and opened the scoring with a fine finish from Zelarayan, who lifted the ball over Brad Guzan following some fine work from Zardes and Milton Valenzuela down the left flank.
In typical 2020 fashion, Atlanta United wobbled, found themselves 2-0 down shortly after half-time and left it too late to mount their comeback. Things could have been oh so different, though, had decisions gone their way.
2. Crew’s Big-Hitters Finding Form Right On Time
The playoffs are here and after finishing third in the Eastern Conference, Columbus Crew will be feeling pretty bullish about their chances of success.
Sure, since sealing their post-season spot, the Crew have been a little more inconsistent than Caleb Porter would have liked, but he will have been pleased to see his big-hitters finding their form just at the right time on Sunday night.
Whether it was Zelarayan getting back among the goals — scoring for just the third time since MLS is Back — or Zardes illustrating why defenders can never take their eyes off him, the Ohio side have match-winners in abundance. And that’s without mentioning Darlington Nagbe running the midfield and Jonathan Mensah locking up at the back.
Columbus will face the New York Red Bulls in their first Eastern Conference playoff match. If the Crew reach their full potential, though, they’ll fear nobody.
3. Moreno And Damm Offer A Plan For 2021
Let’s not beat around the bush, 2020 has been horrible for Atlanta United.
Losing Josef Martinez to a season-ending ACL injury, parting ways with Frank de Boer after a terrible MLS is Back tournament showing, selling Pity Martinez, losing Ezequiel Barco to fitness problems at various points in the campaign. The list of issues could go on.
However, there’s a very long off-season to come for the Five Stripes now — notwithstanding a CONCACAF Champions League tie with Club America next month — and the club will be working hard during that time to appoint a new man in the dugout. One who can bring structure, cohesion and excitement back to the 2018 MLS Cup winners.
And on the pitch, there is a skeleton of a side primed and ready to lead the revival in 2021. Miles Robinson has struggled for consistency this season but improved as the campaign went on and is an incredible one-on-one defender on his day. George Bello has had a fully fit season and looks more and more like a future UMSNT left-back as the weeks go by. And for all their inconsistencies, the likes of Brooks Lennon, Matheus Rossetto and Gallagher have shown enough to suggest they could excel, with the right pieces around them.
But special mention must be given to Jurgen Damm and Marcelino Moreno.
The former signed for Atlanta while they were still down in Orlando at MLS is Back but since coming into the side, has added speed, assists and unpredictability to an often stagnant forward line. Yes, his end product can be a little frustrating at times, but no Atlanta player created more chances (2) or completed more dribbles (4) than Damm on Sunday, while it was the Mexico international who won the penalty. With a healthy Martinez upfront, expect Damm’s assist count to shoot up in 2021.
You might ask which Atlanta United player was level with Damm for dribbles and chances created on Sunday night? Marcelino Moreno.
The Five Stripes’ latest DP signing wasn’t met with much fanfare following his arrival from Lanus but since making his debut in October, the Argentine midfielder has given supporters plenty to be excited about.
Thanks to Moreno, Atlanta now look a threat in transition again, with the 26-year-old more compelled than willing to turn and drive the ball forward on the counter-attack. Furthermore, he’s one of the few players in this squad capable of switching the play with long, diagonal passes, which move the opposition out of shape and create spaces to attack.
Two goals from the spot should whet Moreno’s appetite and, just like Damm, fans will be looking forward to seeing him servicing a fit and healthy Josef Martinez next season.