On paper, Columbus Crew (3-0-1, 10 pts.) and Atlanta United (2-2-0, 6 pts.) appear to be on different tracks during the MLS is Back Tournament, with Crew SC outscoring opponents 6-0 while Atlanta has been on the wrong end of a 1-0 scoreline in two consecutive matches.
Though Caleb Porter used the term "unlucky" to describe Atlanta's tournament results, it's a team that features one of the league's best duos in Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco.
Given that, there's no complacency, Porter said, especially with three points and the top spot in Group E on the line.
"It’s still a very good team. They have a good coach. There’s a reason last year they did very well. Obviously they have some different players. A lot of their structure is similar. Barco and Pity Martinez are still two of the best, most dangerous players in the league that we have to be aware of. They are a difficult team to play against. I think they’ve been a bit unlucky honesty."
Atlanta first lost 1-0 to New York Red Bulls on July 11 before falling 1-0 to FC Cincinnati on July 16, and has been without 2018 MLS MVP Josef Martinez since suffering a season-ending knee injury vs. Nashville SC on Feb. 29.
Through four regular-season matches, ATL's typical high offensive numbers have lagged overall, though it's not too dissimilar to their start in 2019.
This season, Atlanta is tied for 19th overall in shots on target (13) with a shot conversion rate that sits in the League's bottom eight (13.33 percent) in addition to the second-fewest touches in the opponent's box in MLS (56).
Last year, ATL went winless in its first four matches (0-2-2) while totaling 13 shots on target while conceding 13 shots on target and six goals. Notably, that stretched featured the notorious 2-0 Crew victory in the sleet and rain at MAPFRE Stadium.
Certainly, the 2020 version of Atlanta is not what people equate to, say, the 2018 version but as Porter said and as the stats show, they are still a dangerous team that looks to play in a similar style, as evidenced by their run to the Eastern Conference Championship last year.
- HIGHLIGHTS: Columbus Crew 4 - 0 FC Cincinnati - July 11, 2020
- HIGHLIGHTS: Columbus Crew 2 - 0 - New York Red Bulls - July 16, 2020
"You see the 0-2 and yet, if you watch the game against Red Bull, they had a lot of very good spells. Red Bull obviously stunned them for a goal. It could’ve gone either way in that game, and the second game, obviously, they dealt with a red card the majority of the game. So they are a very good team. We are not taking them lightly because we know in MLS, every team is capable and this team is certainly capable.
"We are not going to remain complacent and we are not going to take this team lightly. That would be a real mistake to take this team lightly. They have good players, they have a good coach, they are a great club."
As for Columbus, the Black & Gold have a top-five shot conversion rate (22.86 percent) and co-lead the League in goals-against through four matches with one, the latter trend being a particular point of pride, Porter said.
"We were really pleased with last game that we didn’t give up a shot on goal. We pride ourselves on clean sheets. It’s something our defenders and our entire team takes pride in."
Key to that prominent defensive play, as cliche as it is, has been the club's apt offensive play, Porter explained.
"So the more that we have the ball, the more that we stay away from our goal, the more that we pin teams back, the more that we press from the front high up the pitch, the more difficult it is for teams to get close to our goal – to even have the ball enough to smell our goal, so that’s a really key thing for people to understand."
As for Atlanta, the Five Stripes will be without starting midfielder Jake Mulraney and substitute forward JJ Williams, as both received red cards in ATL's loss to Cincy last Thursday.
Kickoff on Tuesday vs. ATL is set for 8 p.m. ET. The match will be shown on ESPN2, TUDN, & TSN, as well as the ESPN App, TUDN App and TSN App. Fans can also listen to English and Spanish radio streams here.