Heading into Saturday’s match at Atlanta United, it is an opportunity, as head coach Caleb Porter put it, to see “individually who can do it and help us execute the way we want to play.”
The defending MLS Cup champions are winners of four straight at Mercedes-Benz Stadium – a place where Columbus still has yet to see a regular-season victory. With Club & Country players coming in on short rest, combined with a number of injuries (no new news, of course), Porter mentioned how it has been an interesting week, but that the attitude has been great and that it presents a healthy measuring opportunity.
“Obviously, we know where we are at in terms of the playoffs and the challenges of that," Porter said. "For me, I look at this as a chance to measure where we are at in our progress and irrespective of what happens at the end of the year.
“It’s a great game for us to see how far we’ve come, see how far we need to go because this is definitely one of the best teams in the League, so it’s a real challenge – our guys are up for it,” he continued.
Challenge is a suitable word, but nothing that the Crew cannot overcome, as they have proven.
Yes, Atlanta is unbeaten in its last 11 matches at Mercedes-Benz. Yes, the Crew defeated the 2018 champs 2-0 on March 30 (and yes, the field circumstances were unique).
That being said, Atlanta will be without Designated Player and 2019 MLS All-Star Ezequiel Barco, who has four goals and two assists through 13 matches. Barco played in both the March 30 match at MAPFRE Stadium and the U.S. Open Cup match on June 18.
Meanwhile, the Crew welcomes the return of five players from international duty, including Gyasi Zardes, who has tallied four goals in the last five road games, while Eloy Room has made at least four saves in each of the last three matches. Notably, since Room's Crew debut vs. Montreal on July 20, the Crew has lost just once in eight total matches (and only once in its last nine matches period).
As for ATL, switching from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 has them back to 2018 form, and as Porter mentioned, a top-two team in the League next to LAFC. A higher tempo with more up-front pressure has seen Atlanta tally up a 12-1 scoring edge in the last four matches overall while the defending champs hold the second-best home scoring margin at plus-20.
Porter mentioned their speed in transition has been a big factor in their return to form, and defender Harrison Afful echoed that idea when it came to game-planning.
“Being organized,” Afful said first and foremost when it comes to handling United’s pressure. “Preparing very well and making sure we’re aggressive. They play a lot of transition, so we have to be prepared when they are attacking to make sure our defense is safe and protect our goal and also take our chances when they come.”
With three of the final four regular-season games on the road, in addition to a home game against one of the East’s top teams in Philadelphia, it’s a gauging opportunity, Porter reiterated.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to close the year out and see how far we’ve come, see how far we still need to go, see individually who can do it and help us execute the way we want to play. That’s the way we’re looking at it and approaching it. We want to a have team and be a club of winners. It doesn’t matter – games, friendlies. Our mindset is always the same, win the game.”
Kickoff at Atlanta is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET on FOX Sports Ohio. Supporters can also listen live on ColumbusCrewSC.com.