It's been a strange start to the 2014 season for D.C. United fans. First and foremost, we're actually able to win games. Sure, it's mostly due to being better defensively - both as a team and just having better individual players - and United still struggles to create shots (17th in MLS in both shots per game and shots on goal per game). And yes, the Metros were in total control for 40 minutes last week, so much so that the narrative about that game has gone from "United lucky to hang on" to "NYRB should have scored at least 600 goals during that game!!!1!"
This season has also strange when you take a look around the league. Toronto FC is winning games, which is always weird, and Chivas USA is decent. Meanwhile, the Portland Timbers are now stumbling around due to various reasons (no direct player in their front four due to injuries, central midfielders and defenders who played way above themselves last year aren't doing so now), and the Houston Dynamo are on a three-game losing streak.
That brings us to the Columbus Crew, whose expansive, technical style of play is flat-out bizarre given their past. From their 90s slogan claiming they were "America's Hardest-Working Team" to the dour teams Robert Warzycha put out, even the best Crew teams were more about effort, power, and size mixed with just a dash of true class (Guillermo Barros Schelotto, for example). At no point in MLS history has Columbus ever been a team you seek out for sheer entertainment value.
Today's Crew doesn't fit the bill. As United was the first to learn, Gregg Berhalter wants to play "the right way;" no matter what that phrase means to you, this Columbus side probably meets the requirements. He shipped out the brawnier players and benched the guys who run hard but don't do much with the ball other than shuttle it as quickly as possible to someone who actually wants it.
We had little clue that United was set up for an ambush. The Crew's new-look back four certainly seemed more geared towards possession soccer, but what virtually no one expected was to see Berhalter - that's career center back, rumored to have been fired at Swedish side Hammarby for not being attacking enough Berhalter - to push both fullbacks up as high as possible. People weren't expecting a team relying on an undersized 21 year old at defensive midfield to attack with relish.
The funny thing is, despite the surprise attack United was totally unprepared for, it could have been worse. The Black-and-Red got to play Columbus on a night when they were without Dominic Oduro, suspended for an incident in the final game of 2013. Granted, Jairo Arrieta has had success against United going back to the first-ever CONCACAF Champions League, but still: In the opener, we weren't even facing the best Crew eleven, and they tore us apart.
This underlines the difficult task in front of DCU tomorrow night at Crew Stadium. Even if United was in top gear right now, whatever that might look like, the Crew would still be a bad match-up. The things this DC team has a hard time with, the Crew are built to exploit. There are a few things United can do that the Crew aren't solid on, which we'll get to, but the balance of strengths and weaknesses between these two teams tilts firmly towards Ohio.
The Crew have lined up with the same 4231 formation in every game; in fact, as was pointed out in Behind Enemy Lines yesterday, ten of the eleven starters from the opener have started every game since. The only change Berhalter has made was bringing Oduro in for Arrieta up front after their second game.
Berhalter's fixed eleven does have some injury-enforced question marks. Josh Williams, who was the best player not named Federico Higuain at RFK on March 8th, left the Crew's game against San Jose last week with a knock. Our SB Nation frenemies at Massive Report note that, at practice mid-week, Williams was declared "fine," but any time a player picks up an injury there's at least a little question about their availability.
Columbus has a ton of possible ways to replace Williams, but the most likely move they'd make is to just plug Academy product Chad Barson. He's another capable attacking fullback, though perhaps not as relentless and definitely not as athletic as Williams. If Berhalter really wants to go for the jugular, he could also move Hector Jimenez to right back and bring in Justin Meram or Ethan Finlay, but that seems unlikely.
The other question is actually Oduro; the aforementioned (aforelinked?) practice report notes that he left training on Wednesday early and didn't return. Berhalter also said that Oduro should be fine for tomorrow's game, but apparently made a point to mention Arrieta and towering rookie Adam Bedell as "ready to go" if Oduro was out.
I'm expecting to see Oduro, but don't be surprised if Arrieta gets the call instead. The difference between the two is in approach: Oduro is arguably the fastest player in MLS, while Arrieta relies far more on his cunning off-the-ball movement. Oduro usually either beats people on the run or gets on the end of low crosses, while Arrieta actually has a habit of trying to find his shots from along the top of the box. Both are difficult players to face, though I'd rather see Arrieta given the lack of speed United has at center back.
Speaking of having two bad choices, that's something Columbus does really well in a lot of different ways. Williams and left back Waylon Francis are, by a wide margin, the most attacking pair of outside backs in MLS. Most teams have one guy, like a Chris Klute in Colorado or Sean Franklin for United; for the Crew, both players push high as frequently as possible.
That leaves teams with a tough choice to make. Do your wide midfielders focus on making sure those two don't have much influence? If so, you end up leaving your own outside backs 1v1 against Jimenez and Bernardo Anor, and you also end up asking those wide midfielders to contribute to the attack a) from deeper starting points and b) while they're tired from doing so much defensive running.
The alternative is actually something TFC was disciplined enough to pull off: Stay organized and compact, and let the fullbacks get plenty of touches but little penetration. This may not have been part of Ryan Nelsen's plan from the start, but once Michael Bradley scored early it became the main idea. More importantly, it worked: The Crew fired in 48 crosses (or 41...Opta offers different numbers between the Chalkboard and the stat sheet), which means they got away from the short combination play they do well.
I'm spending a lot of time on the outside backs, but it's based on how badly United fared against Williams last time out. The communication down the flanks needs to be a hell of a lot better than it was between Christian and Nick DeLeon on the killer second goal for Columbus in the opener. Williams got in behind on that play, and that's when things went from "this is mildly dangerous" to "they're definitely about to score a goal on us."
TFC kept Williams and Francis from getting all the way up the field with the ball and/or with space to attack, and they showed why they're fullbacks. They started hoofing crosses in because they didn't know what else to do, and the Crew are not a team that lumps the ball into the box and hopes for the best. Oduro, Arrieta, and Higuain are not scoring goals due to size and bravery; in fact, the Crew has one of the smallest starting lineups in the league.
I don't think United can simply copy TFC, though. For one, it requires an early goal, and good planning doesn't include willing goals into being just because it'd be nice. The Crew shifted away from what they're good at out of desperation; it'll be harder to get them off their game at 0-0.
Fabian Espindola is going to be crucial in this game for United. It's not just that he's been involved in every single goal we've scored this season (scored one, took the corner on our two CK goals, released Chris Rolfe with the best single pass we've had all season, and released Christian to cross for the Goncalves own goal). Espindola's ability to attack outside backs in the run of play is a vital threat to keeping those two home. Those last two goals I mentioned both came with Espindola in a wide position, and teams know full well that it's an area he thrives in.
The other way Espindola can help is more traditional when we're talking about second forwards. He's been clever between the lines, moving well and using his quick feet to dribble out of traffic. Espindola should take his cue from what Higuain did to us on March 8th, operating just out of Trapp's central post just ahead of the back four. Tony Tchani doesn't really drop back much if he doesn't have to, and I'm confident that Davy Arnaud and Perry Kitchen can provide enough of a threat to burst forward that Tchani can be distracted (focus is not a strength of his).
That should see Espindola in spots where he can actually create, either by switching the point of attack or via combination play. I'm interested to see him link up with Rolfe in those situations, because the two seem to be on the same wavelength. It's not quite a Jaime Moreno-meets-Christian Gomez instant chemistry, but the two see the game similarly enough that I think they can pry open the Columbus defense. In particular, I think Espindola needs to attack the channels, where Williams is still not 100% - he's still not done his conversion from longtime center back - and Francis can be reckless.
Back to the Crew and the tough choices they force you into, there's an even more difficult one in the middle. If you play a deeper line to cope with Oduro's speed, you are either a) playing so deep as a team that your attack will suffer badly or b) increasing the space you leave between the lines, which means Higuain has more space. No one ever wants to give Higuain more space, but if you push up you're opening the door for a simple through ball or chip over the top for Oduro to race onto, and we don't have Marvell Wynne suiting up in black.
It's a high wire act without a net, basically. I'm of the opinion that Higuain should be the first concern, and by playing a higher line and taking a more aggressive (perhaps it's better to say "less conservative" instead) stance United can at least offer a real attack rather than hoping for a jailbreak counter or set piece goal. I've seen every Crew game that Oduro has started this season, and he doesn't look to be in particularly good form. We're picking poisons here, and if it were me I'd cheat towards denying Higuain space and time.
The other issue with Higuain is one that United can't use tactics to fix. Higuain's ability to lose markers and get on the end of service has been unleashed by Berhalter, and he's as good as anyone in MLS at that particular art. United, meanwhile, has had real issues with tracking runners between the lines all season long. MLS's own video scouting report for this game illustrates the point well.
If United isn't organized, attentive, and excellent in terms of communication, we're going to have issues. The Red Bulls repeatedly took advantage of Black-and-Red players ball-watching during attacks, and the Crew made NYRB's ability to burst into the box late look negligible by comparison.
Higuain and Anor are both very good at getting involved in the passing move, then waiting for attention to turn elsewhere before getting themselves into good spots. With Higuain, his preferred run involves a few hard strides followed by abruptly cutting off his run, which usually sees his marker continue running towards the endline and Higuain ends up open around the penalty spot. Jimenez, meanwhile, is less of a goal threat but is dangerous as a set-up man when he gets in behind.
United simply can't get by without being better in possession than they've been this season. In particular, a repeat of the second half against the Metros would be disastrous. United needs more players to show the courage and composure to connect passes rather than simply hit the ball towards Eddie Johnson and hope he can hold it forever. Columbus has had the possession advantage in every game they've played thus far, but it's a lot easier to defend during a 55-45 game than 65-35. United isn't so organized or cohesive yet that the defense will carry the day, so the front six will need to string passes together for 90 minutes.
Speaking of EJ, he's one of the mismatches in United's favor that I alluded to some 1500 or so words back. Simply put, Johnson has a significant physical advantage over both Michael Parkhurst (height, physical strength) and Giancarlo Gonzalez (strength again, plus speed), and he needs to make it count.
There was a lot of frustration in the stands at RFK last week with EJ for his inability to finish, but he was very smart about making sure he did most of his hold-up play against Ibrahim Sekagya rather than Jamison Olave specifically to give himself the same kind of mismatch, and his hold-up play was good. This week, he doesn't have to be so choosy.
With his back to goal, Johnson should have no trouble keeping the ball long enough for United to support him if we're not looking at everyone else being extremely deep and having to cover 40 yards to get close enough to receive a pass. If we can actually establish some midfield possession and get Johnson facing goal, all the better. Both Crew center backs will be in real trouble if Johnson is running at space while another United player has a window to find him, and they'll also struggle if we can get the ball wide and put in some crosses (high or low).
The other major issue for the Crew is that, suddenly, United is actually a good set piece team. Actually, we're overly dependent on them for goals right now (three of five goals), but that's an issue for a different day. The Crew are both a short team and not a particularly powerful team. Williams and Tchani are big (though Tchani isn't a particularly attentive marker), strong guys, but Gonzalez is a bit on the light side, Parkhurst's bio has been padded unless he grew 2 inches playing in Denmark, and the rest of the team is average in size or smaller.
Meanwhile, United has Bobby Boswell, EJ, Jeff Parke, Christian, and Kitchen going up for set plays. Williams will almost certainly mark Boswell or Johnson, but after that Columbus will be at a loss going 1v1. Berhalter is precisely the kind of modern coach that would attempt zonal marking, but I don't think his Crew have enough collective soccer IQ to pull it off well enough to make up for the disparity in size and aggression here. If Espindola's service is as sharp as it has been recently, this is an even more likely source of chances than Johnson's athleticism in the run of play.
Bottom line: This is a huge test of how much progress United has made in the last few weeks. This isn't an out-of-form Revolution minus Kelyn Rowe, and it's not an overly tense NYRB side missing Tim Cahill either. Columbus is confident, they're probably not going to be missing anyone, and they're playing a style of soccer that tests teams in terms of soccer IQ, positional discipline, organization, and focus. United has proven to be better at all of those things than in 2013, but they've still shown a lack of attentiveness when the ball gets pinged around.
If that's the case tomorrow night, the Crew will be celebrating their fourth win of 2014. However, if United can embrace the challenge and use the confidence gained from two straight shutout wins to fuel an improvement in the mental side of their game, we could actually see a more even game. In that case, set piece prowess and some intriguing defensive weaknesses that dovetail with United's strong points open the door for what would be a far more impressive win than the previous two.