The last time D.C. United met the Columbus Crew, things didn't go well. The 2-1 scoreline flattered United, even if Columbus made several attempts to let us get away with a poor showing. Despite the best goal of our season thus far by Rafael, this game is perhaps better remembered for Bill Hamid making a string of huge saves and Kyle Porter's apparently good goal (I say "apparently" because the Professional Referee Organization's mea culpa concerning the initial mistake was extraordinarily generous to United in my book). Nick DeLeon picked up his hamstring strain in this one as well, and it was our first home loss since March 2012.
Since then, things have gotten more dire for DC. However, the match didn't exactly result in Columbus launching themselves in the opposite, upward direction. They're a mere 0W-2D-1L since, racking up a two 1-1 draws - one a disappointing home result against Philadelphia, the other a respectable road point in Montreal - before last week's 1-0 loss at Chicago. That last game is an undoubted low point for Columbus, whose performance on the night was simply awful. If not for Andy Gruenebaum and some wasteful shots by the Fire, we'd be talking about how the Crew were blown out. On the night, Columbus managed just six shots, none (none!) of which were on goal.
The problems for the Crew of late have been numerous. Since replacing Jairo Arrieta due to national team concerns at RFK with Ben Speas - a change that involved moving Dominic Oduro up as a lone forward - the Crew have been pretty one-dimensional going forward. Oduro is still an inconsistent finisher and really only thrives on his speed, and the rest of the Crew attack has not added a second wrinkle yet. Robert Warzycha - who is, as per usual, short of a Plan B himself - has further problems with the form of Arrieta, who has been pretty unremarkable this season. Teams have continued to chase Federico Higuain out of the middle, and the Crew have been more or less reduced to relying on set pieces and defense.
About those set pieces: Columbus has scored four of their nine goals either via a giant defender's header or following up on a half-clearance following such plays. They also had one called back at Toyota Park in the 4th minute due to a very narrow (but correct) offside call.
Given that United has looked pretty shoddy in these situations all season, that's a significant problem. The Crew have the tallest back four in MLS, three of whom - Williams, Glauber, and Marshall - are real threats as targets in the box. Combine that with Higuain's delivery and the style of wingers Speas and Eddie Gaven (essentially "isolate fullbacks and dribble at them"), and you have a team that should end up at or near the top of the list of set piece threats in MLS.
In terms of formation and personnel, Warzycha should be considering changes but might not have many options:
Against Chicago, he pushed Higuain up as a withdrawn forward and went to a double-pivot 442 in an attempt to get his team to start playing, but it made no difference. Unless Arrieta had a good week in practice, or Warzycha was so offended by last week's performance as to ring changes despite prior form, this is the eleven we'll see. If Arrieta plays, it would probably mean Gaven moving to the left wing, Oduro on the right, and the tricky Costa Rican up top.
Chicago's success against the Crew came in part due to their ability to, as a group, deny space for Higuain in the attacking third. Columbus even made several comparisons between their problems at Toyota Park and their showing against us during the week. The difference, boiled down, was that the Fire did a good job of forcing Higuain to go wide or drop deep to get the ball, whereas we let him play in the middle. Chicago made it hard to find Higuain, and we did not.
Part of that is a consequence of our use of the 4132 that day after Marcelo Saragosa came up injured in the warm-up (for what it's worth, Chicago played with a double-pivot), and part of it was just sloppy defensive play all around. If United repeats that mentally sluggish performance and leaves open passing lanes for Higuain, we won't be able to stifle the Crew like Chicago - a team that is hardly playing well right now - was able to.
We fans often chalk games like that up to a lack of desire or hustle, but that is a vast oversimplification. At RFK, it wasn't that United failed to put in the requisite effort. It was that we were too slow of thought and did the wrong things with our effort. Higuain was not given the extra attention he merited, and the Crew just kept feeding him the ball all day long. Against a team that's so reliant on one man to do their creating, that's suicidal. The Black-and-Red must be much more intelligent to pick up a point or three in Ohio.
Another thing teams have mostly done well of late against Columbus is dealing with Oduro's speed up top. The recipe is simple: If the Crew are coming forward at speed and Oduro is facing your goal, your back four has to drop off. No one wants to defend deeply, but playing a high line when Oduro is in full flight is basically like trying to recreate the MLS Shootout from the 90s.
On the other hand, if Columbus is playing slowly through the midfield, it's time to aggressively step up the field. Not only will this compress the space for Higuain and the Crew in general, but Oduro will likely be playing with his back to goal. That's where he struggles, due to an unreliable first touch and his generally slight frame. Chicago in particular forced the Crew to play slowly by jamming up the midfield after turnovers, and that speed of play took Oduro out of the game.
The lesson for United: You don't deal with Oduro as an individual. You deal with him by forcing Columbus to play slow, and that means transitioning to defending - both mentally and in terms of positioning - more quickly than the Crew can transition to offense.
Since Montreal and Philly don't really use a similar formation, I'm going to recommend another idea that worked for the Fire. After starting the match in a 442, Frank Klopas pulled Chris Rolfe off the front line and went to a 4411. Rolfe's role became as much defensive as offensive. If the Crew back four had the ball, Rolfe stationed himself between the ball and the nearest member of the double-pivot (either Agustin Viana or Danny O'Rourke). If the Crew got the ball into the midfield, Rolfe made sure to pressure those two players in an attempt to force them to play sideways (and to feet, slowing things down) or backwards.
The move worked like a charm, because both Viana and O'Rourke are not skillful enough to play their way out of enthusiastic pressure. United made it easy for these two to provide the basis of the Crew's possession at RFK, even if neither created anything directly. What they did instead was create a rhythm for Columbus, allowing the more skilled players to do the attacking. Chicago, on the other hand, made it rough on them and as a result the Crew attack was confused and harried.
Klopas isn't exactly an ace tactician, but he got this one exactly right. This simple move helped force Columbus to play in a way that doesn't suit Oduro while also forcing Higuain to drop deeper to find the ball. What makes it more inviting is that, in Dwayne De Rosario, we have a player who is positionally similar to Rolfe. De Ro needs to be doing this same thing from kickoff.
Going forward, Chicago exposed something I said the last time we talked about a United-Crew match: Attack the wings! If the Fire can terrorize Columbus with the combination of fresh-off-injury Patrick Nyarko and an out-of-position Wells friggin' Thompson down the right, then surely Chris Korb and either Marcos Sanchez or Kyle Porter can do the same. If Speas starts, this is especially inviting, as the second-year winger has little appetite for defending.
Korb was more of an overlapping force last season than he has been in 2013, and we need to see him getting up the wing. Thompson didn't fire in crosses or embark on any Andy Najar-style dribbling runs, but the simple act of getting forward and being an option created new angles for the Fire attack and added decisions and complexity that the Crew didn't deal with very well. If I had my wish - and United owes me one after losing on my birthday - Korb would be our busiest player tomorrow night.
Columbus has also given up several goals from outside the box (like Rafael's, for example). It's not so much that Andy Gruenebaum is vulnerable to such shots, but that the Crew back four can drop off too deep. The spaces that open up at the top of the box can be big enough for players to take a touch before going to goal. As such, United should look to have a pop from 20-25 yards if there's room; not only is this a proven way to score on Columbus, but it also adds a wrinkle to the attack that United hasn't shown enough of. Guys like De Ro and Porter in particular stand out as threats in this department.
Intriguingly, Columbus has scored eight of their nine goals in the second half (the odd goal: Josh Williams at RFK, of course). On most occasions, this is broadly down to teams losing some defensive discipline and focus as they get tired. Against a team like Columbus that relies on set pieces and the huge speed threat of Oduro, it's less about the collective breakdown and more about individual mistakes, and tired players tend to screw up more often than fresh players.
To me, this indicates two things for United. First, it's an extra incentive to get on the board first, and preferably in the first half. It's not like Crew Stadium is a particularly difficult place to play, and on the season Columbus is winless there (0W-2D-0L). Second, it underlines the importance of putting the Crew on their heels. We see it in soccer all the time: The team that is controlling the ball and the tempo usually doesn't tire out as fast as the team that's just chasing the ball and can't attack coherently. United shouldn't go to Columbus and play afraid; rather, we should be looking to dictate the terms of how the game is going to be played.
Overall, and despite United's poor start to 2013, this is a game we can win. The Crew aren't in good form right now, and they may even be thinking that a home game against the 19th best team in MLS is a sure win. The tactical recipe to beating Columbus was just made clear by another struggling team, while the Crew themselves are talking about this week's key word: Transition. If United follows the Chicago blueprint defensively, and just as importantly can transition from offense to defense more quickly than Columbus can switch into attack mode, there is no reason to approach this game with fear.
Conversely, if United is slow in transition, Higuain is going to find space, Oduro will be making runs in behind the back four, and we'll probably be in for a repeat of the previous game between these two teams. United can't just believe that matching the Crew in terms of work rate will do the job; we have to work smarter to win this game.