After a season with 42 competitive games, D.C. United can earn themselves a full week to rest up and prepare for their playoff opener with a win (and probably a draw as well) against Columbus Crew SC today. The rest isn't an enormous concern after a few weeks of just playing on the weekend, but the prep time could be key for a United team that never steps onto the field with much margin for error. Here's how they get the job done today:
Columbus is going to be without Kei Kamara and Federico Higuain due to suspension. That's an enormous advantage for United, and it's an opportunity that has to be converted into success. For United, that means playing this game as if Kamara and Higuain are on the field in terms of intensity and focus. It's simple, really: You bring your A game no matter who lines up on the other side, and if there are worse players in the game you're all the more likely to win. This will be the first time all season Columbus has had to start without their top goalscorer and their #10, and United needs to make sure the Crew lives to regret it.
Make the size advantage count
United is a taller, stronger team than the Crew. That advantage needs to count for something here, especially in terms of set pieces. Columbus has been struggling all season to defend in the air, which is a risk they knowingly take to get more technically gifted players onto the field. That's admirable in terms of aesthetics, but United's job isn't to hand out commendations for playing pretty soccer. The Black-and-Red need to make sure this game is physical and that they're putting a good number of crosses into the penalty area. In the midfield, they need to be very hard to play against. Being alert enough to arrive in time to make legal physical challenges - going shoulder-to-shoulder, etc. - is going to be important.
Punish them for pushing their fullbacks so high
Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis have both played for their respective national teams, and their roles for the Crew are very aggressive when compared to the rest of MLS. That combination of overall ability and attacking intent is a big part of what the Crew are trying to do; I'd argue that they need strong fullbacks in their scheme more than any other team in the league.
However, pushing up high is a tactical risk, and it's one United is in a good position to punish. With Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius both good at picking up the ball around midfield and surging into available space, DCU should be able to create some real chances when the Crew turn the ball over by quickly attacking the space in behind the right and/or left back.
What does that mean in practical terms? It will certainly help if United can funnel the Crew towards the touchline and then force a turnover out there, as it cuts down on the amount of time it will take to find the appropriate wide midfielder. Fabian Espindola's tendency to drift wide is also going to be very important. He'll find plenty of space, and we know he can produce a lot of cross attempts. In those moments, United needs DeLeon or Pontius supplying a back post run and filling in as the second forward inside the box. In particular, Pontius going back post will be an excellent threat. With Michael Parkhurst the right-center back, Pontius will have a major aerial advantage in those situations. Espindola prefers to drift out to the left, but today he needs to strike more of a balance to exploit that mismatch.
Gregg Berhalter's entire system is based around making teams defend from touchline to touchline. That's tough to do in any formation; in a 442, in poses real challenges. The issue is simple: With one fewer central midfielder than the Crew, if things get stretched out there will be way too much space in the middle for Columbus to play in. United can't get stretched out horizontally, because that will allow the Crew to hoard possession even without Higuain (and possibly without Tony Tchani as well).
That means United's communication has to be excellent, and everyone has to remain focused on the team's shape and structure at all times. United is going to have to move side to side as a group, and one weak link is all it takes to break down against this sort of opponent.
Key on Trapp
The Crew rely heavily on Wil Trapp's ability to set the rhythm and cycle the ball throughout the team. He's pretty good at that, so United needs to ensure that he's pressured enough to bring his 88.2% rate of completing passes down towards 80%. Perhaps more importantly, United is going to have to make sure he never has time to look up and play long-range passes. Trapp can open up any game with his ability to put a 40+ yard pass on a dime, and as we already discussed United has to stay compact to succeed today. This is going to require some extra running from the forwards because Trapp drops very deep in possession.