Thiago Almada couldn’t have timed a second yellow any worse. His off-ball foul well away from the play on Decision Day earned him a red card and a suspension for one game. Tonight’s game. It’s hard to explain how big a deal that is. But we’ll try.
American Soccer Analysis tracks a metric called “touch percentage” which measures the percentage of a team’s touches a player receives. In the final two-thirds of the pitch, Almada takes 16.4% of Atlanta United’s touches. Only two players in MLS take more for their team. Houston’s Hector Herrera (17.1%) and LA’s Riqui Puig (17.0%). Fellow Best XI-caliber 10s Emanuel Reynoso and Carles Gil trail just behind Almada. That’s a hefty usage rate that points to a truth you already probably knew: Atlanta goes as Almada goes. So, where do they go tonight?
Back in March, Columbus welcomed Atlanta United to Lower.com Field and sent them away a couple of hours later with their worst loss in club history. A thorough 6-1 beatdown. Atlanta put up two shots. Almada missed that one, but, to be fair, so did a handful of players on both sides. Still, it showcased some of Atlanta’s deficiencies without their star playmaker, and the Crew’s notable advantage in central midfield. Even with the excellent Tristan Muyumba in the fray tonight, it’s advantage for Columbus thanks to Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris.
Now, Atlanta have to find a way to counter that advantage without the player they turn to when they need to solve problems in possession. Muyumba can help on some level there, but the rest of Atlanta’s central midfield supporting cast doesn’t have the on-ball ability to make up for it. Maybe that means the Five Stripes will turn to someone like winger Saba Lobjanidze to take on an altered No. 10 role to at least provide some kind of forward thrust in transition. But there’s not a clear and immediate answer here.
Maybe that ends up being a good thing for Atlanta United? Perhaps in the other timeline where Almada is healthy, they come out with an overly attack-minded game plan that results in the Crew’s league-best attack gleefully ripping apart Atlanta’s not-league-best defense. In this timeline, there’s a chance missing Almada results in a more conservative approach that ends up being the right fit to steal an upset win in Game 1. After all, Atlanta enter this one tied for the league lead on set-piece goals. Of course, a large part of that is Almada’s ability to whip the ball into the box, but Giorgos Giakoumakis still exists. It doesn’t take a world-class ball to get it to the guy out-jumping everyone else.
The bottom line is there’s a ton of uncertainty around what version of Atlanta United we’ll get. There’s zero confusion about what kind of Crew team we’ll get. They’re going to try and outpossess Atlanta and rip them apart the way they mostly did in a 1-1 draw in Atlanta a few weeks ago. It wasn’t quite 6-1, but the Crew still put up 22 shots on the night.
Cucho, Diego Rossi and Julian Gressel are all going to have their moments and opportunities again tonight. If they capitalize on them, then the Crew have a chance to make a Game 1 statement. For us here at The Daily Kickoff, they’re the second-best team in the East, and there’s an argument that makes them the second-best team in this tournament. They can go ahead and put the rest of the bracket on high-alert tonight if they take full advantage of a limited Atlanta side and pile on chances. If they can shut down whatever version of Atlanta’s attack comes out, even better.
The opportunity is there for Columbus. They’ll either take it or Atlanta will pull out a stunning result that might shape the rest of this tournament.