Eddie Gaven of the Columbus Crew celebrates yet another late, game-changing goal. - Jamie Sabau
D.C. United is a single point away from a playoff berth, but the Columbus Crew - who most likely need to win to stay in the playoff hunt themselves - stand in the way. As a result, tonight's game will carry almost all of the intensity of a playoff match.
Any member of the worldwide Procrastinator's Union - I wanted to join but missed the deadline - knows that a person can find energy and ideas they never knew they had when a deadline approaches. Sure your term paper written during an all-nighter might end up being borderline nonsense, and your thrown-together-in-the-car presentation at work might go down like a lead balloon, but one thing is certain: You will work yourself into a frenzy you simply can't reproduce in less stressful conditions.
The clock on the Columbus Crew's season is ticking away. Their deadline looms: A loss means that just two points for the Houston Dynamo (or even one, as the Dynamo have a five-goal edge in the silly goals scored tiebreaker) in their two remaining games will end the season for Columbus. Even a tie will mean that Houston could finish off the Crew with a home win over the Philadelphia Union or on the road against the hapless Colorado Rapids. Beating D.C. United is not a mathematical must for Columbus, but it might as well be.
We've seen how hard it is to finish off a team that is fighting for their lives. A good recent example is Chivas USA, who came to RFK and put up a real fight to live on for one more day. Once they lost to United, however, they showed how weak they can be without fear as a motivator: Their next match was a 4-0 loss at home to Real Salt Lake. The pressure on the Crew might cause them to play overly desperate, but one thing we can be sure of is that they'll give all of their energy to the cause. Columbus isn't going to go out with a whimper.
Getting out of their heads and onto the field, head coach Robert Warzycha has mostly played a 4231 focused on defending first, but has occasionally preferred an even more defensive 4411. However, given the fact that a) the Crew really can't afford anything other than a win and b) that United has not been a dangerous attacking team in over a month, I expect the less conservative look will be deployed.
Warzycha has some tricky calls to make at several positions, because he has numerous versatile starters who could pop up in multiple positions. Former United center back Julius James pulled his hamstring late in the week, and elsewhere Warzycha has multiple wingers vying for one role opposite Eddie Gaven.
We'll start in the back: The injury to James saw Warzycha give a surprisingly candid answer from a guy who, like compatriot Peter Nowak, would likely prefer to never have to speak to the press. James will apparently be replaced by the oft-injured Carlos Mendes, who hasn't played since August 25th due to injury and the form of what had been a consistent back four in his absence. Warzycha could also push Josh Williams - a natural center back - into the middle and recall Nemanja Vukovic, or use Danny O'Rourke in the role he played on the club's 2008 MLS Cup-winning side, but when a coach says "There's no choice" beyond a specific player, one can assume he's made up his mind and the subject is closed.
Williams will probably play after he was declared fit to play following a recent concussion that had seen him listed as questionable mid-week, but rust and/or a lack of practice time could yet see Warzycha give a start to Vukovic. It's not what he'd prefer to do, but then muscle injuries are very common for players who have suddenly been unable to train for a week or two. Playing Williams is a risk, but it's still very likely what we'll see.
In central midfield, the choice will be between Chris Birchall - who scored the match-winner just after halftime when United visited Columbus - and O'Rourke. Warzycha would love to never have to take O'Rourke off the field, but he is nearly constantly injured. Ankle and knee issues that will probably never go away are often the culprit, and then he is also prone to muscle problems due to all that time he spends unable to train. However, he is fit as of this writing, and Warzycha starts him whenever that's the case. O'Rourke is not as skillful with the ball as Birchall, but he brings more bite and more of a defensive mindset to the field.
The wings will be a case of Gaven and someone else. Warzycha has cycled through Dilly Duka, Justin Meram, and striker Emilio Renteria as his other winger depending on form, availability, and what a given game is likely to require. Each player has one big advantage over the rest as well as one clear weakness: Duka is the most skillful, but also struggles against physical play; Meram is the most likely goalscorer in the group, but tends to disappear from games when he starts; and Renteria, who plays soccer like an enraged bull, is the best athlete and hardest worker but also has no real idea what he's doing defensively (hard to blame him, since he's been an out-and-out striker for his entire career).
Once Warzycha picks his man (I expect Duka, as he will add more to the Crew's possession game), he also has to sort out which wing that player will end up on. Gaven is generally deployed wherever Warzycha feels he gets the better match-up against the opposing fullback.
Against United, that will be a fascinating question. If Gaven plays on the left, he'll be up against Andy Najar, who is more likely to get detached from the back four than Chris Korb. However, Najar is more of an attacking threat, which means that Gaven will have to spend more time defending, which in turn hurts the Crew attack.
If Gaven's on the right, he might have fewer chances to exploit the channel between Korb and the center backs - he's one of the best in MLS at that - but will also have less defending to do (though he'll still have plenty to do if Chris Pontius is wide left for us). Warzycha has the edge here over Ben Olsen, because it's a lot easier to swap your wide men than it is to tell your fullbacks to switch sides. If the match-up isn't going the Crew's way, expect to see Gaven moved to the opposite flank in hopes of breaking through.
Take note of the arrow above Milovan Mirosevic. The Chilean arrived billed incorrectly as a deadly playmaker, but his real threat on offense comes from his late runs into the box. Once the Crew gave him a holding role that opened the door for those runs (as opposed to asking him to be part of the first wave of the attack), he started to really find his feet. If United doesn't change away from our recent 4231-ish formation, our attacking midfielder will need to help in both tracking those runs and alerting Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa that Mirosevic is making his move. Communication and alertness are keys here.
The Crew's season really turned around when they got striker Jairo Arrieta and enganche Federico Higuain on the field together. Arrieta - who scored against us in CCL play back in his days with Deportivo Saprissa - doesn't have the look of a lone striker. He's not at all physically imposing, and while his speed is OK, it's not like playing Dominic Oduro or Sanna Nyassi and having to worry about getting burned on anything over the top.
Instead, Arrieta's real threat is his movement. He has developed a keen understanding with Gaven, where both players pick a channel and try to slice in behind. He's also very good at dropping off the front line, especially since the rest of the Columbus midfield knows that such runs are a cue to burst forward into the space Arrieta just left. This sort of movement is how they beat us at Crew Stadium, and is a huge threat tonight.
Higuain, meanwhile, burst into MLS in a fashion that reminded me of Christian Gomez's 2004 arrival. He was the perfect man at the perfect moment, and he racked up 3 goals and 6 assists in his first 5 games. Since then, however, teams have started to figure his game out, and he hasn't been involved with a goal in weeks. By paying extra attention to playing tight in the center of the field, Higuain has been forced to drift into wide spots, which has dulled his influence on games.
Nonetheless, Higuain is still making an impact. His ability to drift wide opens up a lane for Mirosevic to run into, and both Gaven and Duka are comfortable moving into the center to prevent crowding a wing. Plus, there's still the threat of his free kicks. Higuain is among the best in MLS at going to goal and at serving the ball up for others, and the Crew as a team have plenty of aerial threats. Arrieta, Duka, and especially Gaven are very adept at drawing fouls as well, so United's tackling needs to be very good all game long. Letting up few set pieces tonight could be the best way to contain the Crew offense, particularly if we can throw them off their passing rhythm in the run of play.
Going forward, United needs to exploit some mismatches down the wings. We've seen Nick DeLeon torch Williams before, and it was no coincidence. DeLeon's skill with the ball at his feet and his inventive nature are a nightmare for a guy like Williams, who would probably prefer to be in the middle doing battle in the air with Lionard Pajoy or Maicon Santos. United can further exploit Williams when Najar overlaps, because Williams will simply be unable to keep up speed-wise.
On the other wing, Chris Pontius has an advantage in terms of size and strength on Sebastian Miranda. The Chilean is a good 1v1 defender, but Pontius is faster and should have no problem winning any shoulder-to-shoulder collisions if he rounds the right back. Party Boy should also look at attacking Chad Marshall, who is having a very off year and even in the best of times would be susceptible to the Pontius Special.
United's ability to pressure coherently will also be vital to this game, as we discussed on Filibuster. The Columbus back four only has one player - Miranda - that is truly comfortable on the ball, and O'Rourke is also vulnerable in possession. United should press frequently, as it will force the entire Crew team to play closer to their own goal while also increasing the likelihood of gaining possession in promising areas.
There is no good reason to let unskilled defenders pass with ease out of their own end. United needs to pounce on this weakness, and that means staying plugged in all over the field and pressing as one, rather than a disjointed attempt that can be easily broken down. Ineffective attempts at playing high pressure are tiring and demoralizing as well as obviously carrying the immediate danger of having fewer players behind the ball. United needs to press, but it must be done correctly throughout.
Finally, there's the final 15 minutes of games. The Crew scored in the 91st minute of their last match to turn a loss into a draw, and a week before that it was an 87th minute (clearly offside, but it counted anyway) game-winner against Philly. In their last six non-losses, the Crew have managed no less than seven goals from the 80th minute onward (including three in stoppage time).
This amazing streak points something out very clearly: This Crew team does not know when they're beaten. It's always important to give everything you have, but the Crew combine that with a belief that the game isn't lost until it's actually over. When a team keeps doing this sort of thing, it creates a fearless attitude. If United is up 1-0 or sitting on a tie, Columbus will not see a packed DC defense and say "There's no way we can score." In MLS, that's all too often the case, and United should not risk trying to pack it in and protect a narrow lead or a tied score.
Further, this game is virtually do-or-die for the Crew, and if you've seen playoff soccer, you know that teams tend to take unusual risks when their season is on the line. United can't expect the normal MLS sub patterns if the Crew are behind. It's not going to be a slightly more attacking midfielder coming in for O'Rourke, for example, or fresh legs on the wing. It'll be subs like a striker for a defender, and the Crew playing 343. We'll see them start to attack with 6-7 players regularly.