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Atlanta United at Columbus tonight, keys to the match, & more: Starting Lineup, November 1

by Jason Longshore

1- Mike Conti and I will be live with you from Columbus' Field starting at 7pm tonight for Game 1 of the MLS Cup Playoffs for Atlanta United. Don't forget, and please spread the word, we'll be on Star 94 tonight. Kickoff will be at 7:55, and we'll have an abbreviated Full Time Report after the match. (Photo credit: ATLUTD)

2- Thiago Almada is suspended for the match after receiving two yellow cards in Cincinnati in the last match of the regular season. I'm fascinated to see who replaces him in the starting 11, if that's the only change to the starting 11, and how the team is structured.

3- One thing up front, please don't assume tactics are based on the formation at kickoff or how the team defends. Something I've loved about this team as it's structure has changed throughout the year is the versatility of setups that still allow the team to play in its own way. It might bring certain aspects of the game model to the fore, it might protect some other other aspects of the team's play/personnel. But shape does not define tactics.

4- Columbus is a prime example of this also. They will play with 3 center backs who don't always function as center backs. They will play with wing backs who sometimes function as fullbacks or central midfielders or wingers. Sometimes it's a wide 3 up front, sometimes it's a #10 behind 2 forwards, sometimes it's 2 #10's behind a single #9, and this can often change as the match goes on.

5- The constants for Columbus are the central midfield pairing of Aidan Morris and Darling Nagbe and the forward play of Cucho Hernandez. The other pieces can rotate and change around that core in the middle of the park. Denying service to Cucho is always important against Columbus, as is breaking up the passing duo of Morris & Nagbe.

6- What Columbus does so well that's so hard to prepare for is how the manipulate and create space. Wilfried Nancy is a very creative coach, he doesn't follow the typical patterns of play. He'll find solutions to problems in unlikely ways. For example, in the last match against Atlanta, he deployed Sean Zawadzki as a wing back on the left side. Previous to that, Zawadzki had been playing as one of the three center backs who would step up into the midfield. With Zawadzki tucking inside and looking to combine with Morris/Nagbe more than stretching the field high and wide, that created space for Alexandru Matan to pin Brooks Lennon to the backline rather than allowing him to get forward as often as he does. It created space for Columbus while denying a weapon for Atlanta.

While it's very easy to say that Columbus will play the same way that they always do, and that's true in the very broad sense, the tactics they will use to play that way vary from game to game and are often not what you would expect. Do not oversimplify Wilfried Nancy's game model.

7- One important trend in this match and for this series is Atlanta's ability to grow into matches and Columbus' tendency to concede more in the second half. We saw this play out against the Crew last time at the Benz as well. After the 75th minute, Atlanta has a goal differential of +10 while Columbus has a goal differential of -5.

8- Atlanta has had that internal fight all season long, but now it has game changing options off the bench in a variety of positions. The depth on the wing is potent with multiple options with different characteristics available to both start or enter the match in the second half. Jamal Thiare has brought a very different kind of profile to a backup striker. Juanjo Purata provides security and aerial dominance to the backline when needed. Getting Osvaldo Alonso's experience back into the group is huge as well if needed to shore up the midfield.

9- I don't expect Atlanta to play defensively tonight, it's not in their makeup or Gonzalo Pineda's way, but I do expect them to try to manage the tempo of the match like they did in Seattle earlier in August. Slowing the game down with possession is a good way to manage a match like this.

The pressure tonight is on Columbus. They know that if they lose tonight, Atlanta can close out the series at home next week. If they don't get an early lead, how will they handle that pressure? If they are holding onto a slim lead, how will they handle that pressure? Atlanta's job tonight is to apply that pressure throughout the 90+ minutes.

10- In case you missed it, Mike Conti joined me for last night's Atlanta Soccer Tonight. Get more of our thoughts on tonight's game at the link below:

11- On this day in 1962, Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For today's Song of the Day, here's one my favorite RHCP songs that fits the mentality Atlanta United needs tonight. Enjoy!

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