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MLS Eastern Conference: Columbus Crew flop in the CCC final, Atlanta United crumble & more on each team

We’re dissecting every MLS team in the Eastern Conference.

16 min read

Welcome back our two-part weekly MLS column here at Backheeled, where we break down all 29 teams in the league.

I’ve got the East. Joe Lowery's got the West. Miami have depth. Cincinnati have their eye on the Supporters Shield. And New England have problems…lots of problems. 

To read up on the West, check out Joe’s rundown.

MLS Western Conference: Chicho Arango is the selfless superstar, LA Galaxy’s no-brainer & more on each team
We’re dissecting every MLS team in the Western Conference.

Atlanta United

Result: 3-2 loss vs. Charlotte FC

“That’s Atlanta in a nutshell,” said Apple TV’s Danny Higginbotham as Charlotte’s Liel Abada was gifted six yards of space at the top of the box to score the winner at the Benz on Sunday afternoon.

If you defend like that, you deserve to get punished. If you defend a DP like that, you will get punished. The Five Stripes followed up an impressive 3-1 win in Miami midweek with a whimper, rolling over at home as their rivals (??) made themselves at home. The 3-4-3 that worked so well against Inte rMiami left far too much space in midfield, and Charlotte pounced on the space left behind both wingbacks. 

On paper, this should be one of the teams best in the league. On the field, they’re the most disappointing.

You’d think a side trying to be more consistent, climb the table and challenge for silverware would try to keep their best players on the roster, right? Apparently not.

This just blows my mind. Giorgos Giakoumakis is one of the truly elite No. 9s in MLS. He’s the definition of lethal around the box. He’s the type of striker you build a Cup-winning team around. It’s a ton of money, sure, but I don’t see how you can be an organization that claims to prioritize ambition and silverware but offload such a crucial and in-form piece of the puzzle halfway through the season.

Knowing Garth Lagerwey and Arthur Blank, I’ll probably eat those words.

FC Cincinnati

Result: Bye

The Garys got the weekend off after a shock 2-0 loss midweek to Nashville SC. They’ve been the best defensive team in MLS so far this year, allowing just 0.88 goals per game. The underlying numbers back that up – Cincy allow just 1.02 xG per game, which is also the best in the league. 

Pat Noonan isn’t content, though.

I was surprised to see that the numbers agree with Noonan… kind of. They’re slightly more vulnerable on set pieces than they are in open play, conceding 0.26 goals per game from dead ball situations and having allowed three goals on the year. Both of those figures are still among the 10 best in the league, but there's a bit of dissonance between their overall defending and their set piece defending.

I’m not losing much sleep over it. Their defense is posting some of the best numbers of all time, and I’ve burned through my superlatives thesaurus to describe Lucho Acosta, Luka Orellano and Kevin Kelsy every week. So yeah, they could probably clean up a few things, but they’ll be fine either way.

Charlotte FC

Result: 3-2 win at Atlanta United

Charlotte bounced back from a midweek loss to the Red Bulls with a rivalry win on the road, beating Atlanta United at Mercedes Benz thanks to a “put the league on notice” performance from DP winger Liel Abada.

Let’s start with this; Dean Smith has turned this into an elite defensive unit and a ultra organized team. The entire team knew when they were pressing and when they were sitting in, and they executed it perfectly throughout the night. They made Atlanta’s backline uncomfortable on the ball and threw the central midfield pairing of Dax McCarty and Tristan Muyumba completely out of sync.

When they dropped their lines, they knew exactly how to break and where to look to find space on the counter. 

Abada was given far too much space on both his goals, but the best players in this league make you pay for your mistakes. He did that twice. That little bit of added quality in the final third is going to go a long way for this team. This defense keeps them in every single game they play, and an increased level of quality in the final third can help provide the goal or two they need to turn clean sheets into wins. 

They’re not in fifth place in the East by accident.

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