Atlanta United and Columbus Crew SC have been on opposing ends of the Eastern Conference standings for most of the 2019 season, but Columbus bolstered their ongoing case as Atlanta's bogey-team with a 3-1 win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday.
Columbus, who memorably defeated Atlanta United in a penalty kick shootout in the Five Stripes' first-ever Audi MLS Cup Playoffs game in 2017, made it a regular-season sweep with Saturday's win, after winning 2-0 in a washout in Columbus back in March. And Atlanta were left believing the result was fair on balance.
“I think we deserved this, not just today because of our performance but leading up to the game this week with the way we trained," Atlanta's Julian Gressel said after the loss. "We’ve just got to take a look in the mirror. Definitely not worth No. 1 in the East today. All we can do is focus on Wednesday, and hopefully prepare better and then play better and get three points.”
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“We weren’t sharp enough," Atlanta head coach Frank de Boer told reporters. "We were 1-0 up [at halftime] but you had the feeling we weren’t there today. … We were rusty today. We had also two trainings that I think the sharpness wasn’t there.”
While Atlanta pinpointed problems in training leading up to the clash, Columbus believed they were on top of preparations in the leadup, and it showed on the day.
“We had a great plan," Columbus head coach Caleb Porter said. "We trained all week for that plan. The plan was to come in here and play aggressive and play to win.”
“You saw on display the pressing and the transition," he added. "Those are things that will be in our DNA moving forward. And to do that you have to have personnel to execute that and you have to have guys who have a killer instinct and guys who are aggressive and can cover ground.”
Perhaps the most impressive part of Columbus' win was the rally. After going down 1-0 in the first half, they regrouped after the break and racked up three unanswered goals to flip the result.
The Crew are still on the outside looking in for the playoffs this season, but they have joined the chasing pack and are six points below the playoff line with three games left to play. It may be too much ground to make up, but they aren't giving up just yet.
“It’s been a tough season for us … we’re still going to keep going," Crew defender Jonathan Mensah said. "Three games left and we can still make the playoffs. If we can win all three games it’s going to happen for us. So we’re going to keep going.”