There was a brief period in MLS history where teams only played each other twice, and the games were virtually always far apart. Those times are over due to expansion, so D.C. United will once again face the Columbus Crew. We're not even halfway through the season! By the time this one is over, games against the Crew will represent over 21% of United's total league matches. You have to suspect that US Open Cup and playoff matches loom. Maybe CONCACAF will even find some zany reason to let the Crew into the Champions League.
Hyperbole and forced references to my favorite album ever aside, this may not be the irritant it would seem to be. Sure, Columbus taught United a harsh lesson in the season opener, and then bagged a stoppage time equalizer while down a man in what is likely the most frustrating result for the Black-and-Red thus far in 2014, but it takes three to make a pattern. This won't be the same Crew team we've played twice before.
It hasn't been fun playing them as of yet, but right now is an ideal time to get another shot at Gregg Berhalter's side. Since the beginning of May, the Crew are on a 1W-2D-4L run and have been shut out three times. Federico Higuain - basically the sun in the Crew's solar system - will be out for tomorrow's game. Defensive midfielder Wil Trapp's status has been treated as a state secret for over a week in Ohio, making him a significant doubt for this one. Oh, and this game will be the Crew's third in a week, right as the weather has started to get more humid.
Still, this same team is good enough that Real Salt Lake - a team with 25 points and just one loss in 2014 - went hyper-defensive for their midweek visit to Crew Stadium. In that game, Columbus forced RSL goalkeeper Jeff Attinella into several highlight-reel saves before snatching a draw late. The results may not be there at the moment for the Crew, but they're also a better team than "five points from a possible twenty-one" indicates.
Higuain and Trapp aren't the only players at issue at the moment. Giancarlo Gonzalez and Waylon Francis - two guys who have done their best to ensure that they're deeply unpopular around RFK Stadium - are with Costa Rica's World Cup team. Dominic Oduro, their leading scorer from 2013, is in a deep funk right now. The Crew have reasonable depth, but it's being pushed to its limits at the moment.
Still, some things aren't going to change. Berhalter is, by all appearances, staunchly committed to playing a 4231 with the mindset of hoarding possession, sending the outside backs forward often, and stretching the field out horizontally as much as possible. Plenty of teams in MLS play a 4231, but none of them values width more than the Crew.
You're probably thinking "Geez, that's a lot of question marks. Do you even know anything about who's going to play in this one?" It's a deceptive issue; most of these players will play, it's just a question of where. Like any coach who doesn't want the dual issues of an injury-battered side and a heavy loss due to tired legs, Berhalter has a plan for rotating his players, and that raises more issues here.
Across the back, Josh Williams went 90 minutes against Toronto and RSL. He is the Crew's most attacking fullback, and likely is atop their chart of total distance covered. Normally Williams is a no-brainer to start, but pushing him to go 90 again would be a risk for Columbus. Hector Jimenez - normally the Crew's starting right winger, though that role is under threat - and Chad Barson could also fill in here.
Centrally, Michael Parkhurst will be captaining the side; it's just an issue of who partners him. Tyson Wahl strongly prefers to play left-center back, and Eric Gehrig has a similar preference for the right-center spot. As Gehrig just played mid-week against RSL and Wahl is the calmer player with the ball at his feet, my guess is that Wahl is recalled.
On the left, Barson has stepped in for Francis, but against RSL the job went to midfielder Bernardo Anor. Anor did pretty well, though, and only played in stoppage time last weekend. He may be fresh enough to start again, especially if Barson - more of a natural right back anyway - spells Williams.
The scenario is similar elsewhere. Finlay has in roughly a month gone from an afterthought who entered games as a high-energy sub to the Crew's best goalscoring threat at the moment. He only played 13 minutes against RSL, so he may be the least questionable player in the above diagram (aside from Jairo Arrieta and Steve Clark). If he's held out, however, I'd expect to see Jimenez. Oduro could also be used, but given his form and the full 90 he played Wednesday that seems highly unlikely.
Centrally, Higuain's spot should be given to Ben Speas, but even that is not entirely certain. Berhalter had said all season that the Homegrown product - a winger in college and under Robert Warzycha - is Higuain's understudy. However, with Higuain suspended for the TFC match, Berhalter turned to Dan Paladini for an hour before sending in Speas.
From where I sit at least, the idea was to get the gritty Paladini out there to disrupt TFC's midfield on the road before trying to snatch three points. It almost worked, too: Speas got an assist just five minutes after coming on, and only some disastrous Crew defending allowed a 2-1 road lead to become a 3-2 road loss. Speas replaced Higuain just before halftime on Wednesday, and had a splendid assist on Finlay's equalizer. Without Higuain, the Crew's chances of scoring are pretty low unless they field Speas, so I expect the former UNC Tarheel to finally get the start.
Speas may be Higuain's replacement, but he's not the same kind of player. Speas doesn't have Higuain's touch with the chipped pass, and he's not as much of a goal threat, but he does like to get going on the dribble more often than "Pipa." Speas isn't going to pick out too many long crossfield balls or anything like that; instead, he looks to unbalance defenses by beating people with the ball at his feet, then dishing to a runner. Forcing him to play with his back to goal and function as more of a traditional #10 would be preferable than to let him face goal on the run.
On the left wing, Meram has recently taken over as the starter but went the full 90 in each of the Crew's games this week. If Berhalter wants to rotate someone, he's probably looking for guys that played 180 minutes in wide positions. The only issue here is that Meram's replacement would be Anor, who a) just went 90 mid-week and b) may be needed elsewhere.
In central midfield, Trapp has been replaced by Agustin Viana, but it's not like-for-like. Trapp's actual responsibility as the Crew's metronome has - bar a few moments here and there - fallen to Tony Tchani, who normally functions in a shuttling, ball-winning role between Trapp and the rest of the midfield. Viana has filled in at that spot, but he's another potential left back. Tchani could also return to his normal spot if awesomely-named rookie Kingsley "Fifi" Baiden gets a start. Baiden made his season debut as a sub in Toronto and immediately took the deeper role. Berhalter could also use Paladini in the shuttling role; he hasn't gone that route much this season, but it's a far more natural fit for Paladini than playing as a #10.
Trapp's use as the tempo-setter for Columbus is one of those vital things that often goes unnoticed until it's no longer working correctly. The differences between Trapp and Tchani are small, but they infect everything about Columbus when they're in possession. While Tchani's positional discipline has been better than I expected, he's not as aware as Trapp.
What's more alarming for the Crew is that Tchani's passing touch isn't as reliable. Where Trapp routinely strikes crisp passes on the ground at angles that set his teammates up to keep the ball moving quickly, Tchani will occasionally mix in a bobbling, difficult pass or an overly casual lob. The ball gets to its target, but it takes longer to do so and requires an extra touch to control and/or get it onto the other player's preferred foot. That extra second or so is often the difference between catching your opponent before they've gotten into their defensive shape or after.
Up top at least, things are straightforward. Arrieta is the normal starter, and Berhalter noted that resting him against RSL was part of the rotation plan. The Costa Rican didn't play at all Wednesday, so unless he gets injured in the warm-up he'll be starting against United. That's not great news, because Arrieta's history of success against DC goes back to his days with Deportivo Saprissa in the first-ever CCL.
Question marks aside, the Crew will - like Sporting Kansas City last week - try to play the same game they do when everyone is available. The outside backs will push high in possession while the deepest defensive midfielder hangs back. In possession, Columbus regularly morphs from a 4231 into a 3331 (or a 3313 if the wingers get really aggressive).
They are almost certainly going to win the possession battle - they're only behind KC in terms of their possession percentage on the season, while United is merely mid-table - and they're going to try to get the ball wide. The reason this hasn't been effective of late is that the Crew are struggling to maintain a speed of play that allows them to exploit the gaps all that width creates.
Early in the season, Berhalter said he wants teams to come out and high-press his side. It's not because he wants to engage in 5-4 shootouts every week; rather, it's because he knows full well that his team is probably going to have a harder time breaking down teams that opt to stay compact and minimize the number of times Columbus gets to attack in transition It's no accident that I bring this up just days after the Crew got their goal against RSL from one of the few times they caught the 2013 US Open Cup runners-up upfield. If you let the Crew play in transition, their commitment to stretching the field and their team speed are going to burn you.
In the attacking third, a real danger has been the goalscoring form of their wingers. Finlay has three goals in four games, while Meram (two goals, including the previously mentioned stoppage time equalizer against DC), Anor (two goals), and Jimenez (one goal) are all capable of getting on the scoresheet.
In each case, the main threat comes from cutting inside to shoot from just outside the box, but each player has a slightly different bag of tricks to go with that. Finlay is the fastest of the group and plays like a traditional winger; when he has the chance, he'll look to run the channel in pursuit of a through ball. Meram is the best dribbler and has a knack for curling shots in a similar fashion to the Pontius Special. Anor is a sneaky threat in the air, and Jimenez has a very good shot from long range.
Going forward, the Crew have been weak at the back (no big surprise for a team missing half their defense). Against TFC, Parkhurst played like he was still dwelling on being cut from the USMNT roster. His horrible giveaway gave the Reds their equalizer, while Wahl's careless decision-making opened the door for an admittedly soft PK call against the Crew earlier in the game. The Gehrig-Parkhurst partnership didn't make such drastic mistakes, but then RSL could barely be bothered to attack at all so it's hard to build a case that the latter pairing is the more effective one.
In either case, Parkhurst will be tired - just to add to the whole short rest thing, the USMNT camp was full of two-a-days - and neither Wahl nor Gehrig is the kind of guy that would start anywhere else in MLS bar Chivas USA. Throw in some gassed and/or unfamiliar fullbacks, and you have a back four that is vulnerable. United will need to attack at pace and keep the runs coming from odd angles. Tired minds have difficulty grasping complex problems, and United has produced goals by confusing fresher teams than the Crew.
When it comes to set pieces, the Crew are a middle-of-the-pack team even with Higuain. Without him, Speas (or, if he plays, Paladini) will take the corners and free kicks. Those two aren't in Higuain's class, but they're still good enough to be a threat. Williams is a great target, and both Anor and Viana fearlessly hurl themselves at the ball to make up for their average size. Tchani doesn't usually get to the service, but he is good at drawing attention and is strong enough to set picks.
At the other end, Columbus seems to struggle a bit with fully clearing their lines on set pieces. RSL's goal came on a sequence that saw a free kick turn into a corner that was only half-cleared before becoming another corner that was half-cleared. That clearance was fired in from distance, and Luis Gil slotted the ensuing rebound home. If Berhalter didn't keep his hair so short, he'd likely have pulled it out as a result.
United has the size advantage here, but on the looks where Columbus gets to the service first there will still be chances to get the ball back into the area. Either way, there will almost certainly be promising looks available if United can win some corners or draw some fouls in the attacking third.
All in all, this is the kind of game good teams don't waste. Much like facing Sporting without three-quarters of their starting defense and their starting defensive midfielder, getting a game against an injury-riddled team on short rest at home is a gift from the soccer gods. United essentially fell asleep in the last ten minutes of their visit to Columbus and paid for it; this time, a far more ruthless approach is necessary to turn this opportunity into three points.