MLS Knockout Round: Crew SC 'not scared' of Atlanta cauldron

For teams that finished just a point apart in the standings, the amount of attention focused on Atlanta  (15-9-10, 55 points) as opposed to Columbus (16-12-6, 54) is a no-contest.

Or at least it was until news leaked last week that Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt is pondering a move to Austin. That set off a flurry of statements and announcements and clarifications. For much of the past year, Atlanta United has been the talk of MLS, and for good reason.

The expansion team did rack up 70 goals – second only to Toronto FC – and average 48,200 fans per game – second to nobody in league history – during a dazzling inaugural season. Yet the Round of KO is just one game and since Crew SC is unbeaten in its last 10 matches, outscoring opponents 19-10, it will have momentum and confidence when the teams square off at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday (ESPN2, UniMas, MLS Live 7 p.m.).

Head-to-head it’s been all Atlanta United, a 3-1 winner at its first home, Bobby Dodd Stadium, in mid-June and a 2-0 victor at MAPFRE Stadium two weeks later. But for this meeting Atlanta United’s defense, which has quietly logged seven shutouts in its last 10 games, is weakened.

Left back Greg Garza has been out for more than a month with a hamstring injury. Centerback, captain, and former Crew SC player Michael Parkhurst left the season finale Sunday against TFC with a twisted knee and his availability for the playoff opener will be a game-time decision.

Several Columbus attackers have lifted their games in recent weeks: Ola Kamara, who led the team with 18 goals in the regular season, has scored five in his last seven games. Playmaker Federico Higuain has logged five of his 14 assists in the last three matches, during which Justin Meram has scored twice.

Crew SC needs a big game from keeper Zach Steffen, who played every minute of the regular season and finished fifth in the league with 98 saves. AUSC placed 179 shots on goal -- third-most in MLS -- and is the only team to have four players with 20 combined goals and assists: Hector Villalba, 24 (13 goals, 11 assists); Miguel Almiron, 23 (9, 14); Josef Martinez, 20 (19, 1); and Yamil Asad, 20 (7, 13).

The quartet doesn’t start every game as a unit, but if Parkhurst can’t go, midfielder Jeff Larentowicz could drop into the back line and thus head coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino would have slots for all four players as well as rookie Julian Gressel, who bagged five goals and logged nine assists during an outstanding rookie season.

The sharp form of Higuain will put pressure on either Larentowicz and/or Carlos Carmona, yet AUFC must be wary of Meram’s raiding runs and the propensity of Harrison Afful to attack out of the back. Atlanta has also been vulnerable on set plays, and few can deliver better balls than Higuain for Kamara and Co. to put away.

On Sunday, Columbus played its first game since the Austin news became public. Crew SC fell behind twice at Citi Field but rallied to get a 2-2 tie with New York City FC that head coach Gregg Berhalter believes has primed his team for what it will encounter Thursday.

“We’re not going to be scared of Atlanta,” Berhalter said. “We know they’re a good team. We’re going to have a lot of respect for them, a lot of respect for the environment the stadium has, but we’re not going to be scared.”
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