COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — The Columbus Crew is ready for its first playoff game in three years and the first to be played at Lower.com Field. The first round series in the MLS Cup playoffs begins at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday against Atlanta United.
The new format implemented by MLS makes the first round of the playoffs a best-of-three series. If a game ends in a draw after 90 minutes, it goes straight to penalty kicks to determine a winner. No. 3-seed Columbus will play at No. 6-seed Atlanta in Game 2 on Tuesday and, if necessary, will host a decisive Game 3 on Nov. 12.
As the Crew enters its first playoff match since winning the MLS Cup in 2020, coach Wilfried Nancy prepares for an Atlanta team with a top attacking duo that his squad has succeeded against.
Here is what to know ahead of the start of this first-round series:
Crew’s explosive style
The Black & Gold is considered among the MLS’ most entertaining teams as its style of play promotes fast attacking play and high-scoring games. Wilfried Nancy brought the 3-4-1-2 formation to central Ohio, where the fullbacks play an advanced role and are encouraged to join the attack.
Crew players adapted to this high-intensity style with ease and scored the most goals in the regular season with 67. The team had numerous three- and four-goal games, but its best offensive performance came against Atlanta. In a March home game, the Crew won 6-1 and had five goal-scorers.
Columbus has only lost once at home and has outscored opponents 41-14 at Lower.com Field. With Cucho Hernandez leading the line (16 goals) with a great supporting cast behind him, the Crew is a dark horse to go far in the MLS Cup playoffs.
Atlanta’s attack shorthanded for game one
While the Crew claimed gold in the goals department, Atlanta United took the silver. The Five Stripes scored 66 goals in the regular season, but its defense held it back from finishing higher. Of all the playoff teams in the Eastern Conference, Atlanta gave up the most goals with 53.
Despite its shortcomings on defense, the team is led by two of the best attacking players in MLS, but one of them won’t play in Game 1. Midfielder Thiago Almada, who led MLS with 19 assists and scored 11 goals, is suspended after receiving a red card in the team’s last regular season game. Atlanta will depend on Greek striker Georgios Giakoumakis, who scored 17 goals, for a chance at the upset.
Expectations for the series
With the two top-scoring teams in MLS, the Crew-Atlanta series should bring about plenty of goals. While Columbus is favored in Game 1, the series could shift on its head for Game 2 in Atlanta with Almada back.
If matches come down to penalty kicks, Atlanta might feel it has the edge with veteran keeper Brad Guzan in the net. Crew goalkeeper Patrick Schulte ended the season with a better save percentage than Guzan but has yet to be a part of a playoff penalty shootout.
The best-of-three format, which does not include aggregate scoring, is a concern for Nancy after he saw all the other game ones.
“All the scores I saw, the second game, it is like nothing happened,” he said.
That brings about a question of how each team reacts if it goes down early during Game 1: Does it take a step back and save energy for future games?