Major League Soccer

Atlanta United-Crew Preview

The absence of several key players led to a poor result for Columbus Crew SC last week, while Atlanta United FC has had its own troubles adjusting to the loss of its old coach.

Still seeking a first MLS win under Frank de Boer, defending champion Atlanta returns from a much-needed break for Saturday night's road test against a Columbus side determined to bounce back from its first loss of the season.

The transition from Tata Martino to de Boer hasn't gone at all smoothly for Atlanta (0-1-2), as an attack that was MLS' most potent a year ago has mustered a paltry two goals in three games despite leading the league with a 60.9 percent possession rate. The new coach has also gotten off to a rocky beginning with an enthusiastic fan base after regrettably calling the club's supporters "spoiled" following a disappointing 1-1 draw with expansion FC Cincinnati in the March 10 home opener.

Atlanta's most recent outing was a bit more encouraging, however, after it rallied for a 1-1 draw with Philadelphia on March 17 on substitute Ezequiel Barco's goal in the 70th minute. Still, the outcome was viewed as a missed opportunity in a match the Five Stripes overwhelmingly dominated in possession time.

De Boer attributed the slow start as a product of his team playing a grueling six matches in 18 days due to advancing to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.

"I think the reason is mostly because of the freshness we are missing right now," he said following the Philadelphia match. "It's not that easy when you play that many games, and you're tired. The players are really tired right now."

The schedule seems to have taken a toll on heralded newcomer Pity Martinez, who's managed just one assist in seven overall matches and is now out with a hamstring injury suffered while competing for Argentina during the international break.

Columbus (2-1-1) has some health issues of its own with reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Zack Steffen likely to miss a second straight match with a right knee injury. He was one of five regulars unavailable for last Saturday's visit to Philadelphia, a 3-0 loss in which the Crew were plagued by turnovers and defensive breakdowns.

"They had guys out, we had guys out. For me, that's no excuse," Crew coach Caleb Porter said. "We have a squad of good players, we had good players in the game and we have to just be better, no matter who is in the lineup."

Porter will still welcome the returns of striker Gyasi Zardes and captain Wil Trapp from duty with the U.S. national team. Zardes has accounted for 44 percent (22 of 50) of the Crew's goals since joining the club prior to last season.

Atlanta gets Hector Villalba back from his call-up from Paraguay's national team. The 24-year-old wing has five goals and an assist in the five lifetime meetings between the teams, a series the Five Stripes have dominated with four wins and one draw.

Atlanta also handed the Crew its last loss at Mapfre Stadium, a 2-0 defeat in June. Including last year's playoffs, Columbus has gone 8-0-2 at home since.

Updated March 28, 2019

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