With the MLS Cup playoffs potentially just four days away, D.C. United has been given a nice dress rehearsal tomorrow against Columbus Crew SC. The game is on national TV, the opponent is strong, and for the Black-and-Red it's a very good test of whether the last two games were wins because United has improved their play or because they played two bad teams in the form of NYCFC and Chicago. Columbus is going to the playoffs, and in fact just went to Toronto FC - another playoff team - and won 2-0 in impressive fashion. This game should be a really good indicator of where both teams are, not to mention the fact that both clubs are fighting to avoid having a midweek do-or-die playoff game.
It's not a perfect test, though, because Columbus will be without Kei Kamara and Federico Higuain. That's the league's joint-top scorer and likely MVP runner-up in Kamara and the Crew's goalscoring playmaker/set piece wizard in Higuain. Columbus has reasonable depth at 9 positions; these two spots are where they don't have a player with a similar approach to just plug in. It's great news for United in terms of boosting their chances to win, but it does diminish the playoff litmus test aspect of tomorrow's game.
Gregg Berhalter arrived in Columbus a couple of years ago with a clear plan in his head, and he hasn't deviated much at all. There have been a couple of experiments with a back five, but they are isolated incidents. The 4231 is what United is going to see tomorrow:
Steve Clark will start in goal, and while he hasn't been as good as he was last year he's still in MLS's upper half at the position. The Crew's tactics include holding a high line and spreading out as wide as possible, and that requires Clark to stay connected by standing further out of his goalmouth than just about any other MLS keeper. United may be able to tempt him into a mistake if they can play a ball in behind the center backs that a forward can get to ahead of Clark. He's also just comfortable enough with the ball at his feet to be lured into mistakes in distribution, so United should selectively look to pressure him and see if they can force a cheap turnover.
The back four looks to be set in stone as well. Harrison Afful - a regular call-up for Ghana - has proven to be a good acquisition for Berhalter after his Plan A Hernan Grana returned to Argentina after a handful of games at the start of the season. Afful and Waylon Francis on the left are both told to push very high and stay wide. The Crew's ability to stretch teams out is based on the positions these two take up, and this more than anywhere else is where Berhalter takes a tactical risk. There will be acres of space in behind both fullbacks for United to attack; in particular, look for Fabian Espindola to peel out left even more regularly than normal.
In central defense, Michael Parkhurst has been joined by Gaston Sauro. The Argentine is a much-needed addition in terms of size, toughness, and aggression. The Crew had been almost comically easy to beat via physicality down the middle until the 6'3" Sauro was signed. He's also helped them balance the roles in central defense. Previous starter Tyson Wahl appeared to prefer Parkhurst's role as the central defender who drops in behind to cover rather than being tasked with stepping into midfield to make early tackles. Sauro is far more comfortable in that department and, a bit like Bobby Boswell, makes it very unpleasant for attackers to receive the ball with their back to goal. Against a player like that, your first touch is crucial. If you get it right, you get to be the matador dodging a bull. If you screw up, you probably lose the ball and end up on the ground in a heap.
Wil Trapp is back from the US Olympic qualifying team and will take up his customary role as the Crew's deepest-lying midfielder. Trapp's ability to reliably connect his passes while spreading the field out and switching the point of attack is the thing that has pundits lining up to praise him. United has to make this game uncomfortable for him, because he sets the Crew's tempo while also being their key figure in making all that positional width actually count. The good news is that Trapp is one of the smallest starting players in MLS, and even a less-than-abrasive player like Chris Rolfe will be able to win physical battles with him. United needs to make sure this game is more about his issues in the more prosaic parts of soccer rather than one that emphasizes his skill as a passer.
Trapp's partner is normally Tony Tchani, but he has missed practice time and is listed as questionable due to a thigh issue. Berhalter may opt to rest him for the playoffs, which will rob the Crew of their physical counterpoint to Trapp's refined play. Tchani has also become a goal threat to such an extent that his 2015 goal total (5) exceeds his total from the rest of his career (4). If he can't go, look for Mohammed Saeid to replace him. The Swedish-Eritrean midfielder is actually smaller than Trapp, though, so without Tchani the Crew will be very vulnerable down the middle if United can make this game physical.
Saeid is also potentially in line to replace Higuain as the #10. That's the role he says he prefers, but he's only been used there as a defensive sub when the Crew are trying to protect a lead. My guess is that he's no more than the third most likely to get the job tomorrow. Instead, it seems likely that rarely used Homegrown player Ben Speas will get the call. Speas was tried as a winger under previous coach Robert Warzycha, but realistically he is more comfortable as a central attacking midfielder. That's been to his detriment in terms of playing time thanks to Higuain being indispensable for Berhalter.
Speas does not have Higuain's range of passing, his touch on lobs (over the back four or over the goalkeeper), or his accuracy as a shooter. What he does have is some very good dribbling ability, and if he does start United should look to make sure he's not lining up a center back while running with the ball at his feet. Hector Jimenez - historically more of a right midfielder/right back - has also seen minutes as a #10 under Berhalter thanks to his ability to play quickly, but he has never created that many chances as a passer. If that's the way Columbus goes, look for him to play more as a facilitator for others while focusing on his pressure when the Crew don't have the ball.
United's defensive planning is probably far more concerned with right winger Ethan Finlay, who is virtually certain to make the MLS Best XI at the end of the season. The speedy Creighton product has been more consistent this season, putting up 10 goals and 13 assists to follow up 2014's 11 and 7. Finlay has learned to use his speed more creatively than just staying wide and sprinting down the touchline. Nowadays, he's actually more likely to run a channel, and his ability to swap spots in transition with Kamara has caused teams endless problems.
With Kamara out, though, Finlay won't have that option on his plate. Instead, look for him to try to make runs on either side of Taylor Kemp before getting to the endline and then either crossing low across the top of the 6 or chopping the ball back against the grain for runners at the top of the penalty area. He's still a huge threat even without Higuain supplying him and without Kamara to play off of.
On the left, Justin Meram has caused United trouble over the years. He's going to look to cut inside and shoot, but thanks to his tricky footwork and a shot that always seems to come out of nowhere he can be unpredictable even when everyone in the building knows what his endgame is. Keeping him out wide and forcing him into being a more traditional run-and-cross winger will effectively cut him out of the game.
Up front, Berhalter is probably leaning towards Aaron Schoenfeld over Jack McInerney. Jack Mac is coming off of an injury himself, first of all, but it's more about fitting the system than it is about talent here. McInerney is by far the better player, but Schoenfeld's size and work rate make him a better fit for the 4231. Without Higuain, the Crew will need to collectively pick up their ability to keep the ball, and I think they'll prefer the 6'4" Schoenfeld as a back-to-goal option over McInerney's poaching instincts.
Off the bench, McInerney will play if his injury isn't an issue. Cedrick Mabwati is also a bit threat for United to keep an eye out for thanks to his speed and dribbling ability. If Saeid doesn't start, he will probably sub in if Columbus is trying to protect a lead. Finally, if they're behind late don't be surprised if Columbus shifts into a 352 of some sort with Finlay moving up to play as a second forward.