A brutal 2013 that saw D.C. United fans losing sleep over a team that went from within spitting distance of hosting MLS Cup to setting records for futility in under a year. A miserable (for us, anyway) winter that made me briefly wish I'd thrown in with my longtime friend and moved to California for the past few months. A crazy offseason full of new faces arriving and familiar faces leaving. A disingenuous opponent to the Buzzard Point stadium finally emerged. After all this and more, we get to play soccer again.
United will host the Columbus Crew in a game that is important for both teams. It's not just that it's the chance to use the season-opener to get started on the right foot. Believe it or not, this game will likely matter to both clubs in the pursuit of playoff spots. In the past few years, the difference between the teams in last three playoff spots in the East and the teams that just missed out is a win here or a draw there. A quick look at what the other teams in the East did underlines that there aren't many playoff spots up for grabs. KC and NYRB will be there. The Revs are probably going to get in too. Meanwhile Philly and TFC both spent millions to get better. Chicago improved their coach. Houston is Houston. You get the point.
Both of these teams have remade themselves, but the methods were different. Columbus finally made a break with the 2008 double-winning team by hiring Gregg Berhalter and shedding some Crew lifers (Chad Marshall, Danny O'Rourke, etc). The focus in terms of remaking their roster was, intriguingly, on improving the defense more than adding firepower.
Or maybe "improving" is the wrong word; instead, the idea was to change the approach to defending altogether. Marshall and O'Rourke are more old-school defenders; Marshall's best quality is his ability in the air, while O'Rourke never met a midfielder he didn't want to kick. The assorted fullbacks were stay-at-home guys. In other words, this was a team built to play against teams that love to cross, and their way to stop teams that wanted to play on the ground involved turning the game into a scrap.
The new faces are different. Michael Parkhurst is pretty much the opposite sort of center back from Marshall. He's small, he's quick, and his primary quality is his ability to read the game. He'll be joined by Giancarlo Gonzalez, who Costa Rica builds their 541/343 scheme around defensively. The Crew also brought in a new left back in Waylon Francis whose instinct to attack is as strong as any defender in MLS. Berhalter has, from the back, turned the Crew into a team that will value anticipation and possession, whereas Robert Warzycha's teams preferred to focus on grit, a zeal for tackling, and security.
Despite that sea change in terms of mentality, the formation is unchanged. Berhalter teased everyone by bringing up the possibility of using a back three early in the preseason, but ultimately never tried it out in games and looks set to stick with something that would look very similar on a whiteboard to what Warzycha would have trotted out. It's also a look that United fans will be familiar with: the 4231 that is sometimes a 442 and sometimes a 4411. Generally speaking, the Crew will defend out of a 442/441, but will move to the 4231 when attacking.
The biggest question by far is in goal, where Berhalter hasn't yet tabbed a starter. Given Steve Clark's experience and the fact that he got the start in the Crew's final preseason game, I'd say he's the likelier starter. Still, don't be surprised of Matt Lampson gets the call instead; if Clark had truly staked his claim, we wouldn't have a mystery here.
The other issue is what Columbus will do to replace Dominic Oduro, whose red card late in their final match of 2013 has worked to our benefit. Hector Jimenez seems to have Berhalter's trust - they were former teammates with the LA Galaxy, and Berhalter traded for him almost immediately after taking over as head coach - and has been playing well throughout the preseason. Berhalter's other options include moving Bernardo Anor to the right and starting Justin Meram (who Berhalter appears to see as a forward more than Robert Warzycha did) on the left wing, giving Ben Speas a start, or a more defensive option in Ethan Finlay.
Those seem unlikely, though, so we should be anticipating Jimenez. He's not the fastest winger by any stretch of the imagination, but his close control and dribbling ability is pretty strong. Jimenez is more of a shifty character than the customary "get ball, run forward fast" second-choice right winger we see in MLS. He's going to look to combine in the passing game, and if he gets isolated Jimenez is more likely to choose the dribble rather than hit an early cross. For Christian, this means staying patient and staying on his feet rather than hurling himself towards the ball and Jimenez and hoping to somehow not foul. Athletically at least, Christian has a clear advantage and shouldn't need to lunge in, so if he stays disciplined he should be able to handle things.
Talking up Jimenez's attacking threat means I'm burying the lede. With the Crew, the first thing to discuss is always Higuain. "Pipa" is virtually irreplaceable for Columbus, and every Crew player's first look will always be to their Argentine maestro. Obviously any team would want someone with his skills getting as many touches as possible, but the Crew are so reliant on Higuain that it can be used against them.
United needs to have a team-wide focus on denying the other ten Crew players the option of passing to Higuain. That requires staying close to Higuain in terms of marking, but it also requires the whole team clogging passing lanes and forcing Columbus to play where we want them to. That means cheating towards Higuain, which of course requires a lack of cover on someone else. Specifically, United should attempt to funnel play towards Josh Williams - who isn't comfortable with the ball - and Wil Trapp, a keep-it-simple defensive midfielder.
It's not easy to do that with Higuain, though, because he has carte blanche to go wherever he wants in search of space. Perry Kitchen clearly will need to dominate central midfield, and the center backs will have to combine with him to make "zone 14" a hellish place to try and play, but that's only part of the job. Higuain is comfortable drifting to either channel and even as far out as either touchline, which means the fullbacks have to prepare for quick combinations and decoy runs involving the Crew's wingers. They also can't expect one habit or another when Higuain goes wide; he's just as likely to make a fool of you on the dribble as he is to play an early cross that no one expects. If we can keep Higuain restricted to unambitious sideways passes in those positions, things are going well.
I mentioned that the Crew will look to Higuain first every time, but that doesn't mean no one is willing to take on the creative burden. Tony Tchani is overly susceptible to that impulse, since he doesn't quite have the skill on the ball that he thinks he does. If Tchani doesn't have Higuain as an option - and sometimes, even when he does - he'll get overconfident and try something he probably shouldn't be trying.
Speaking of Tchani, he's a double-edged sword of a player. On one hand, his runs out of the midfield cause havoc, and his dynamic style of play means he's able to contribute both with runs off the ball and tackling all over the field defensively. On the other hand, he still struggles to learn when to run and when to stay home, and that lack of positional discipline is big. If United pulls him out of the middle going forward, the best thing to do is to make use of that vacated space. Luis Silva in particular needs to get into the area Tchani vacated if the Virginia product flies out wide to pursue the ball, but so too could Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espindola.
Up front, Jairo Arrieta has done well against United over the years, but that's in part because we've so often had reactive defenders rather than players who can anticipate. The former Saprissa man is at his best running the channels - more often the left-center channel, but he's not one-sided by any means - and ghosting away from his marker.
What Arrieta isn't, however, is a back-to-goal target man, and the Crew frankly could use that a bit more. With Arrieta, the idea is usually to get him in behind early in the attack, or to find him in enough space where he can take several touches going sideways (as he lacks the size and strength to body up to center backs). That suits United, because Arrieta usually doesn't have too many ideas if he's playing against defenders who can sniff out his plans early, and in Bobby Boswell and Jeff Parke we actually have that. I remain nervous about speed against that pairing, but Arrieta has only average pace; where he could be a threat is his first couple steps, where he has more of a burst than Boswell.
Let's go back to the new-look defense. Where the Crew were a team you attacked by being clever and moving the ball quickly on the ground in previous years, now they're more vulnerable to big, fast players getting on the end of crosses. Parkhurst is MLS's smallest starting center back, while the 6'3" Gonzalez plays a bit smaller than his height would indicate.
That plays into United's hands thanks to Eddie Johnson's aerial gifts. It's been ages since the Black-and-Red fielded a striker like EJ, and we need to take advantage of it by repeatedly testing the Crew athletically rather than getting into a battle of wits with them. If we're forcing them to scramble repeatedly and make desperate blocks or saving tackles, we're on the right path. If, however, Parkhurst and Gonzalez look like they've barely broken a sweat, we're not scoring any goals.
On the wings, Francis is a worry. He's not the sort of player who provides constant good crosses or good runs; rather, he's a gambler who sometimes comes up big but sometimes loses his shirt. It's not just in his run selection or his occasional long-range blasts; Francis wants to play the killer through ball more than is reasonable for an outside back, but with Arrieta's off-the-ball movement it's something we need to worry about.
Naturally, an attacking left back comes with risks. United needs to make sure there are runners available in behind Francis when Crew attacks break down. That's an issue given that Davy Arnaud tucks inside and is positionally conservative, while Espindola prefers to drift to the left rather than to the right. If we catch Francis well upfield, one of those two is going to have to get into that vacated space - even as a decoy - or we risk not taking advantage of it, which then means Francis has no reason to think twice about jumping into the next attack.
Moving on , Columbus will always be a threat on dead balls with Higuain standing over the ball. He's right up there with Graham Zusi and Brad Davis as MLS's elite set piece takers. The Crew have lost their best target, but Williams scored three times last year from Higuain service, Gonzalez isn't small, and Tchani is an upgrade in size in the engine room. United can't give up fouls cheaply - looking at you, Christian - because Higuain will reliably put the ball into very dangerous spots.
Still, the Crew are overall a smaller and less angry (for lack of a better word) team, and that means they won't be so ferocious about defending set pieces. I'm not sure Williams or Gonzalez have the chops to handle EJ, and that still leaves Boswell, Christian, and possibly Parke (though Parke rarely scores, he can at least occupy a marker). It feels weird to say this, but we should be able to turn our attacking set pieces into real threats based on a straight comparison between our targets and their defenders. It happened last week against the Sounders, who covered our top four guys but still left an athlete like Kitchen wide open, and it needs to keep happening all season long.
Altogether, this is a winnable game for United. The Crew have done well in preseason, but with all the experimentation teams are doing it's not a major sign that they're about to roar to the top of the standings (see also: United's 2010 preseason). Without Oduro, the Crew will be even more reliant on Higuain than they normally are, and they won't have enough speed in the attack to give Higuain the space he thrives in.
All that said, the Crew are looking at us and thinking "This is a chance to take three points on the road in the East," and they're right. Both teams have undergone a lot of change, and the team that can be more cohesive at this early stage - that's "more cohesive," not actually 100% cohesive - will walk away the happier team. Hopefully for United, the influx of veterans and talent hits the ground running faster than the Crew and their attempt to use most of last year's roster playing a completely different style.