Atlanta United ready to face Columbus in MLS playoffs


Atlanta United will host Columbus at 7 p.m. Thursday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the first round of the MLS playoffs. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

“We’ve played Columbus twice this season, so they know how we play,” Atlanta United manager Gerardo Martino said. “We know how they play. We do have the home-field advantage, but I  think they are two pretty even teams. I don’t really believe in those magic preparations three days before a game. We’ve been playing the same way the whole season so I think that’s the way you have to look at it. We’ll go into the game doing the same thing we’ve been doing all season.”

The winner will advance to face either top-seed Toronto, which set a MLS record for points (69) in Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Atlanta United, or NYCFC in a two-legged home-and-home series. That will start Oct. 30 or 31 and the second game will be Nov. 5. The conference finals will be Nov. 21 and Nov. 28 or Nov. 29. The MLS Cup will be Dec. 9.

Atlanta United (15-9-10) finished as the fourth seed in the East and Columbus (16-12-6) as the fifth seed. Chicago (16-11-7) will host New York Red Bulls (14-12-8) in the other knockout game in the Eastern Conference.

In the Western Conference, the knockout round games will be No. 3 Vancouver Whitecaps vs. No. 6 San Jose Earthquakes Wednesday at 10:30 p.m. and No. 4 Houston Dynamo vs. No. 5. Sporting Kansas City Thursday at 9:30 p.m. No. 1 Portland Timbers and No. 2 Seattle Sounders received byes.

Atlanta United defeated Columbus 3-1 on goals from Hector Villalba, Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron at Bobby Dodd Stadium and 2-0 on two goals from Villalba at Mapfre Stadium in their meetings this season.

Martino and his players have consistently praised Columbus throughout the season, sometimes comparing upcoming opponents’ style of play to the Crew.

Columbus uses similar tactics as Atlanta United and, like the Five Stripes, also features a trio of standout players in Federico Higuain, Ola Kamara and Justin Meram that makes the offense work. Columbus scored 53 goals and finished with a plus-four goal difference compared to Atlanta United’s 70 goals and plus-30 goal difference. However, the Crew finished the season unbeaten in their final 10 regular-season games, going 6-0-4.

“They play very good soccer,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said. “They build up out of the back – similar to us – and they create matchup problems and try and overload the sides. We just have to put them under pressure and get in behind them like we were.”

Atlanta United will benefit from playing at home, where it earned 36 of its 55 points in going 11-3-3. The team also set numerous attendance records, finishing with the highest season average (48,200) in U.S. soccer history, most tickets sold for a single game (71,874) in MLS history, set Sunday, and most tickets sold in a season in MLS history (819,404).

“We’re going to be ready and we know the fans are going to be ready,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “We know they are going to create an absolute unbelievable atmosphere for us and for when Columbus (Crew) comes. ... It’s not going to be an easy place for them. It’s going to be hard and we’re going to be 100 percent ready.”

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