Thanks to the vagaries of the MLS schedule, D.C. United will for at least the third time this season face an opponent twice within 14 days. This time it's the Columbus Crew, who recently beat United 1-0 at Crew Stadium in a loss that can only be categorized as "disappointing."
In that game, the Crew managed to impose their preferred scrappy style, and you never want to be playing your opponent's game. While it's tempting to say that United missed Branko Boskovic - Lewis Neal did not impress centrally - I'm not sure things would have been much different on the night with him. Team-wide, DC just didn't bring their A game.
It took nearly half an hour for United to get going, and while a late flurry for the Black-and-Red left us feeling like a draw might have been fair, it's important to note that Columbus had a legit-looking goal taken away in the first half for offside, and also had an embarrassing missed sitter by new arrival Jairo Arrieta. All things considered, Columbus won that game fair and square.
On the plus side, we're not the only East contender to lose to Columbus of late. While we were playing PSG to a draw, the Crew notched a big 2-1 win at Sporting Kansas City thanks to Arrieta's two-goal performance. Losing to Columbus is not like losing to TFC, despite the Crew's problems on offense. Nonetheless, anything but a win at RFK tonight would force us to change our focus from trying to win the East to simply maintaining our playoff spot. This is a big one, folks.
Given that his side has won two straight, and that newly-signed DP Federico Higuain isn't expected to play until next week, Robert Warzycha will probably make as few changes as possible from the team that beat us and the Sporks:
The only question mark comes in central midfield, where Cole Grossman's late red card at LIVESTRONG SPORTING PARK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! means Warzycha will have to make one significant choice. It boils down to going more defensive or being more attack-minded. If it's the former, Warzycha could call on Danny O'Rourke - as always questionable due to his never-ending injury crisis - or rookie Kevan George.
If Warzycha is willing to risk a more attack-minded team on the road, he could simply slot in Tony Tchani. However, he also has the option of the fit-again Milovan Mirosevic, which could mean either a) the Chilean coming in for Grossman, b) Mirosevic playing Eddie Gaven's role and Gaven moving back to Grossman's spot, or c) a 4141 with Chris Birchall alone underneath Mirosevic and Gaven.
If he's able to travel, I'd expect to see O'Rourke. Warzycha isn't inclined to play attacking soccer anywhere, and he has trust issues with Tchani and Mirosevic. George hasn't gotten much time as a rookie either.
The biggest issue here for DC is that we simply failed to force Columbus to play our game. The Crew may be doing well right now, but they're not skilled enough to win a game against us where possession, ideas, and skill are the major factors. They are stuck grinding games out, and that means the margins will always be narrow for them. Just look at our last game: Despite the fact that Columbus got the game they wanted, we still had the late miss by Long Tan and Chris Korb's shot off the post. Grinding teams can never be comfortable.
So obviously it will be important for United to make the Crew play our style rather than once again letting them have their way. How do we do that? The major points are moving the ball more quickly, offering smarter and more dangerous runs off the ball (you can't play quickly if no one's moving), and being able to bypass a jammed midfield if necessary. Emiliano Dudar's passing ability could be vital for that, but we'll also need service up the line from our outside backs. If Columbus is going to press high, we can break that pressure by playing early down either wing.
Finally, there is a need for a different level of personal responsibility. Too many DC players in Columbus brought a "you take care of it" attitude when on the ball, and that played a huge part in being mentally slower than the Crew. United will be much better off with players - not just Dwayne De Rosario - stepping up to the plate rather than trying to pass the buck.
Defensively, Columbus is a team that excels at the physical side of things. They'll eat up long balls, high crosses, and simple movements all day long. United will need to keep the ball on the ground, move it quickly, and also look to isolate the fullbacks and force the Crew to make decisions on and off the ball. If Columbus is forced to defend primarily through smarts, they'll be far less comfortable than if it's just winning physical battles. In particular, Josh Williams - out of position at left back - needs to be tested 1v1 throughout the match.
At the other end, Arrieta has been playing as a false nine (think De Ro playing alone up top a couple times last season). He will drop into the midfield regularly, and from there he can create - see his assist for Birchall against us - or go to goal himself, as he did at KC to score a brilliant long-range goal. Our back four and Perry Kitchen will need to better coordinate when to hand off the job of marking Arrieta, and our entire midfield will need to be sharper about picking up runs from guys like Gaven, Birchall, and potential starters like Tchani and Mirosevic (particularly Mirosevic, who hasn't done well in MLS but is excellent making runs from deep starting points).
Another big issue United had at Crew Stadium, particularly in the first half, was Korb's struggles with Dilly Duka. Part of that is on Korb, who never seemed to be the proper distance from Duka (half the time too close, half the time standing too far off of him). That said, Korb was not getting much support from the rest of the team. Our right midfielder - maybe it should be Danny Cruz for this particular match? - will need to help keep Korb from ending up 1v1.
The other thing with Duka is that he is not a fan of physical play. He's a fragile player to begin with, but he also mentally tends to hide in games when he's getting knocked around. United should absolutely not start fouling him due to the size Columbus can call on for set pieces, but physical play from the opening whistle should do a lot to slow Duka down and get him to start looking to get rid of the ball rather than keeping it and running at people. Getting him to turtle will significantly cut down on the variation within the Crew attack, which is already pretty low to begin with.
I said this was a big game, and it's not just because a loss could see us fall to 5th place (and leave us only one point ahead of the Crew). It's also a test for this United team. If you can't get points against Columbus, how are you supposed to get points against the better scrappy teams in the East? KC and the new version of Houston that has been on fire of late are both grinding, high-pressing, physical teams, but are also both better at the soccer side of the game.
If you can't win at home over a team like the Crew, you can't really expect to go far in the playoffs where you'll be facing teams playing a similar style most of the time. Tonight's game is about more than three points; it will be a great indicator of whether this team's potential is to really contend, or simply to make the playoffs.