After what seems like an eternity, D.C. United will be facing an opponent for the first time in 2012. The Black-and-Red will look to recover from a 4-0 mauling in Houston as they visit a Columbus Crew side that is either struggling (8th place in the East, two straight losses) or simply hasn't played enough games to be fairly judged (2-4 games in hand on everyone in MLS bar the Philadelphia Union and Chivas USA).
Coming into this season, I thought the Crew would be that playoff team that no one paid any attention to, likely dispatched in the first round in an unremarkable game. I figured a team-wide defensive focus, strong goalkeeping, and good individual defenders would be enough to make Robert Warzycha's preferred joy-free style to get into the postseason. The addition of Milovan Mirosevic was in my view their big impact move; he was going to be the guy that would provide the goals and assists to make grinding out 1-0 wins viable.
These expectations have proven half-true. The Crew are still as gritty and ugly as ever under Warzycha, and they are getting good performances from their defenders and goalkeeper (even though the GK in question is Andy Gruenebaum, who has looked great since taking over for Will Hesmer after hip surgery ended his season). The offense has not held up its end of the bargain, though: Columbus is 18th overall in MLS for goals scored with just 17. Mirosevic has been shrug-worthy, and has even seen time on the bench on rare occasions.
That said, this is still a big test for United. The Crew have only given up 19 goals - good enough for joint-second overall, behind Chivas USA - and they know full well that their fate rests on getting shutouts. A team that enters the game with a defined identity can always pose a challenge, and Columbus will also be desperate to turn their games in hand into points.
While this looks like it should be a win for United, it will be nowhere near as straightforward as, say, a bedraggled Montreal Impact showing up to RFK a couple weeks ago. Warzycha doesn't allow any passengers on his team, so everyone will run themselves into the ground. Furthermore, United has history to contend with: We don't have a win in Ohio in just short of five years (8/17/2007 being our last successful visit).
Warzycha's formation has generally been a 4411 but injuries are piling up, Mirosevic is listed as doubtful on the Friday injury report, and starting striker Emilio Renteria is suspended. As such, I expect a more straightforward 442:
Defensively, we should see Chad Marshall at center back, and Bernardo Anor's torn ACL in his debut as a left back means that former starter Nemanja Vukovic should get his job back by default. The other two spots, however, are pretty much up for grabs. Warzycha benched Sebastian Miranda last week, with Josh Williams moving from the middle to the right.
Williams isn't a natural right back, though, and the reshuffle still saw the Crew lose 2-0 to Sporting Kansas City. That said, it sounds like Warzycha is still unhappy with Miranda and will likely continue with Williams out wide.
Carlos Mendes could factor in at either spot, and both Eric Gehrig and former United man Julius James could play center back (particularly if Williams ends up on the right again). James seems like a longshot, though, because like many Crew players he is in Warzycha's doghouse. Gehrig has gotten his minutes mostly by being one of the few Crew defenders to not pick up an injury or multiple injuries.
The midfield is similarly confused. If Dilly Duka is fit it's likely that Eddie Gaven will play on the right - ensuring that Chris Birchall can play in the middle - and the oft-injured Duka will come in on the left. Warzycha doesn't appear to trust Tony Tchani for reasons known only to him, but he's been in decent form and should continue to start in a two-way central role because there are no other options.
Former Galaxy regular Chris Birchall will probably start at defensive midfield, unless either a) Danny O'Rourke is fit for once or b) Duka can't play, which would mean Gaven on the left, Birchall on the right, and probably rookie Kevon George at defensive midfield.
That last situation would possibly be more muddled if not for the suspension of Renteria. Justin Meram has spent most of the season playing left midfield, but he and recent addition Jairo Arrieta were starting as a pair with the rest of the first team during the week.
Warzycha doesn't often divert from what is done in training, and even if he wanted to he wouldn't have many options. Warzycha has seemed pretty low on offseason recruit Olman Vargas since early April - I wasn't joking when I said a lot of Crew players are in the doghouse - battering ram Tommy Heinemann is out for the year, and lanky rookie Aaron Schoenfeld has been struggling with plantar fasciitis for about two months now. Schoenfeld will probably play some role in this game, but I doubt he can give more than 30-45 minutes without risking a further setback.
If you're looking for a star player in Columbus, you won't find him. Marshall has been surpassed by several players as the standout MLS center back (I never thought he was in the first place, but that was an unpopular view). Gaven is consistently good but never great. Plenty of people will tell you that Duka is something special, but the final product is often lacking.
The breakout player for the Crew has actually been Gruenebaum, the former back-up GK who has thrived since Hesmer's hip injury. Gruenebaum may be the tallest competent keeper in MLS (sorry Greg Sutton), and his arms seemingly never end. It's not just size, though; Gruenebaum makes sound decisions and has decent agility and quickness. There isn't really a glaring weak spot for him, and it's no shock that he's been getting some low-level All Star Game hype.
Ben Olsen told the press that this game will "take a hell of an effort,"and he's right. A team like the Crew is probably in the bottom three in terms of actual talent, but they work as hard as anyone in MLS. Fans and neutrals may be mystified by Warzycha's choices and public pronouncements, but he gets his players to buy into the old Columbus ideal of being "America's Hardest Working Team."
If United can match the Crew in terms of work rate, a major strength of the home team will be canceled out, and the contest will become one of skill rather than will. That would be a huge advantage for the Black-and-Red, because realistically the only Crew players that could get into our best lineup would be Marshall and, sometimes, Gaven. If this game is about ball movement, ideas, passing, and touch, we should take three points. If it's a gritty, ugly, down-and-dirty affair, though, it becomes a toss-up. There's a reason the Crew and their 17 goals on the season aren't in dead last yet, after all.
Defensively, it will be vital to stay particularly focused on off-the-ball runs. Arrieta - who gave us real problems during his time with Saprissa in the CCL - and Meram are both smaller forwards who will rely on smart runs more than size, speed, or dribbling ability. Meanwhile, Tchani has shown a knack for arriving late in the box, so Perry Kitchen will need to be vigilant. Gaven is also a threat in that department, as well as the Crew's one real threat to beat someone on the dribble.
Going forward, United should attack Williams relentlessly if he slots in at right back. He's not a natural at the position, he's barely played it at the MLS level, and he seems to lack the agility and quickness necessary for the job. Nick DeLeon looks like a probable starter, and he should look to isolate Williams from the start. Chris Pontius should also drift wide and look for an opportunity to bring back the Pontius Special.
It's worth noting that the center back next to Williams is undecided, which means further confusion and a channel that can be exploited. Pontius will probably be attacking that space the most, but Dwayne De Rosario will probably find room there, and so will Hamdi Salihi if he gets the start. Maicon Santos prefers to drift to the right so he can get a favorable angle with his left foot, but this is a game where the right half of the Crew defense needs to be taken advantage of.
In the midfield, De Ro will be better served if Birchall gets the start over borderline goon O'Rourke. Birchall is hardly a lazy player, but he has less of an edge than O'Rourke, who will throw himself into shutting down De Ro as if his life depends on it. I also think that O'Rourke is a bit quicker and a bit happier to just sit deep; Birchall's passing ability will draw him into the attack, which will inevitably lead to him losing De Ro in transition whenever we counter-attack.
Columbus is not a bad team, but they're not a good team either. A team with real hopes of winning the Eastern Conference and still-reasonable aspirations at a Supporters Shield finds a way to overcome the Crew's tenacity to get a win. The word is that Olsen wants a reaction after the letdown in Houston, and the proper reaction is to make the Crew play up to our level of soccer, rather than to play down to a team that only has 17 goals on the season.