What We Learned: Crew vs. Atlanta United

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SOCCER: MAR 25 MLS - Columbus Crew vs Atlanta United FC
Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Takeaways from a surprising 6-1 win for the Black & Gold

Saturday night brought a nice surprise for those Columbus Crew fans in attendance at Lower.com Field. Playing against a side that sat top of the Eastern Conference heading into the weekend, the Crew dismantled Atlanta United 6-1. And yes, this wasn’t a full-strength Atlanta team but neither was it a full-strength Black & Gold side.

With key players Cucho Hernandez, Lucas Zelarayan, Milos Degenek and Eloy Room all out of the lineup, Columbus still put on the best display of the young season. Scoring six goals doesn’t happen very often in any soccer game, much less one involving the Crew, so hopefully you enjoyed it.

Let’s take a look at our biggest takeaways from the match.

Wilfried Nancy’s decisions

Credit needs to go to the Black & Gold head coach for this five-goal win and the decisions he made. There have been reasons to criticize Nancy in the early portion of this year, but Saturday showed why he was considered a must-hire for Columbus this offseason.

The decision to play young players is going to have mixed results, but it worked to perfection against Atlanta. Nancy wants the Crew to play with energy and young, and specifically hungry, players offer that. This was one of the key differences between the Black & Gold’s depleted side and United’s. Columbus wanted this game more and worked harder for it.

It didn’t all work right away. As forward Christian Ramirez, who scored his first two goals for the Crew, said after the game, these players, especially those in attack, hadn’t played much together due to guys missing time. After 45 minutes, they figured it out and that’s when the goals started to flow.

The Black & Gold broke the Five Stripes’ will early in the second half with two goals in the stanza’s opening six minutes to take the score to 3-0. After that, the visitors offered little in the way of resistance and the onslaught really began.

Breaking a team’s will, especially a team playing as well as Atlanta, isn’t easy. Columbus ran over and through United, even before the goals started coming, creating several good chances and registering 15 shots. Defensively, the Crew held one of MLS’s most exciting young attackers in Caleb Wiley in check while also limiting former forward Miguel Berry. The Five Stripes had just two shots.

That is a job well done by Nancy, his staff and his players.

Alexandru Matan’s emergence

After two seasons of struggles, Matan has come into his own with the Black & Gold in 2023. The attacking midfielder was playing well, then got his first MLS goal last week. This game presented another big challenge, as he was tasked with manning the attacking midfield position and being Columbus’ primary chance creator without Zelarayan.

Misson accomplished.

While Ramirez scored two goals and Jacen Russell-Rowe had another, the case could be made that Matan was the Crew’s best attacking player. He completed 30 of his 39 passes and was active on the ball with 72 touches. Matan created multiple chances, including his assist to Philip Quinton on a corner kick, certainly making his case to be the Black & Gold’s corner taker going forward, as his dead balls reached their intended targets.

Matan began the game playing almost exclusively on the right side of the attack, finding space there against a struggling Andrew Gutman. When the fullback had to leave the game with an injury, Matan also caused issues for his replacement, Tyler Wolff. As the game wore on, the Romanian popped up in other spaces, making it hard for Atlanta’s defensive players to track him.

While it was another good performance from the diminutive 23 year old, Matan needs to continue to work to expand his game. While he likes to be on the ball, he’s much better in space but tends to turn it over when he’s pressured. That dangerous through pass that has become a staple of Columbus attacking midfielders is still something Matan doesn’t always spot.

But given this was just his 14th MLS start, Matan has made strides and has become a player that would be hard to take off the field so far this year.

Quinton in the center

The first four games of the season have been an up-and-down ride for Quinton. The first-year MLS center back has shown signs of what made Nancy confident in signing him this preseason, but has also made some crucial mistakes that will come with young players put in an important position.

Saturday was easily the best performance of the year for Quinton.

Moving from the left center back spot he’s started in the first four games to the middle of the back three, replacing Degenek, Quinton looked more comfortable than in previous games. Instead of being asked to defend players coming at him from out wide, he was able to mark Berry and direct fellow center backs Gustavo Vallecilla and Steven Moreira more.

Because of this, and Atlanta’s inability to get the ball in dangerous areas, Quinton wasn’t forced to make any tackles. Instead, he was able to clear/win long balls played by United and help Vallecilla and Moreira clean up any mistakes with his seven recoveries.

Playing in the center made it easier for Quinton to help move the ball as well. He only recorded 54 touches of the ball, but completed 92 percent of his 48 passes, by far his best of the season. As the central most defender, Quinton wasn’t pressured much, giving him time to read the options and make the right play when in possession.

Nancy will have a decision to make when Degenek returns from international duty, as Quinton looked much more comfortable as the most central center back, as opposed to playing on the left.

What’s real and what’s not?

Everything that took place in this game has to be viewed under a certain lens. Atlanta was without seven players, all of which have played some part in the team’s early-season success this year, and a couple of key pieces. This was a United team that did not look ready to play in this game, making things easy for the Crew at times.

With that said, the Black & Gold also had to adjust to some important players being out and did so at a much higher level. Nancy’s tactics and personnel decisions worked to near perfection.

So how much can actually be taken from this game?

The two-striker formation worked better than what Columbus has done with Hernandez as a floating forward and two attacking midfielders behind him. Matan played with more freedom without Zelarayan alongside him and Aidan Morris was able to push up from central midfield more to be a bigger part of the attack in this match.

Defensively, as mentioned, Quinton was at his best in the middle of the three-man backline. Vallecilla gave the Crew something different in possession as a left-footed left center back with the ability to try different passes and send 12 balls into the final third with his dominant foot.

Is all of this more a factor of the Black & Gold finding something surprising that works a bit better for this team or a case of facing the Five Stripes at the right time and taking advantage of an unmotivated group?

This is for Nancy to figure out in the coming days and weeks.

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