At this early stage of any given MLS season, trying to predict a lineup is still a bit of a complicated process in a lot of cases. Teams are trying to incorporate new faces, and early-season inconsistency often leads coaches to move players in and out of the lineup. In positions where there's a battle for time, the involved players will all get their chance to seize the starting job. That doesn't even get into MLS's tinkerers (like Oscar Pareja and Pablo Mastroeni) or the teams who are simply bad (that's you Philly).
The Columbus Crew are not that sort of team right now. Most of their starters right now were also starters in the same position last season, and the new guys - like Kei Kamara and Hernan Grana - were brought in to improve upon what few holes Gregg Berhalter had to fill in this offseason. The only Crew starting jobs that are up for grabs are both down to injuries, and both have clear second-choice players in line to step in.
Let's get right to how they'll line up. Berhalter has - bar one Open Cup experiment with a back three - stuck with a 4231 since taking over in Ohio:
Steve Clark will be in goal, and he's one of the best in MLS. The Crew also trust Clark in possession more than just about any keeper in the league. I'm not sure that trust is 100% justified - Clark is no Nick Rimando on the ball - but it's necessary for Columbus to be the possession team they want to be. Everyone has to be able to connect passes, pressure or no.
You might notice how high the fullbacks are in the above graphic, which is intentional. Grana and Waylon Francis are the most attack-minded pair of outside backs in MLS. Last year, the Crew basically let Josh Williams function as an extra right winger from right back at RFK last season. If anything, Grana is a more persistent attacking threat. He's the fullback that attacks more of the duo, but that's not to imply that Francis is going to stay at home.
Michael Parkhurst is the leader in the back, though he remains vulnerable in the air (not that United has the sort of physical, burly target man that can really make that pay off). Alongside him, it seems safe to expect Emanuel Pogatetz to start. He was subbed off for precautionary reasons against the Union, but Berhalter had the luxury of doing so given that the score was 3-0 at the time. If Pogatetz's hamstring is worse than the Crew are letting on, Tyson Wahl will step in.
The other question mark I alluded to is the man shielding that back line. Wil Trapp is apparently progressing from a concussion, but it's been a slowly developing thing. Columbus is justifiably going very slow with Trapp, but it's surely helped them that MLS newcomer Mohamed Saeid has looked very comfortable stepping in. Saeid - like Trapp - is one of the smaller players in the league, but he's very tidy with the ball and embraces the fact that his role is all about sacrifice so that Tony Tchani can burst forward in his #8 role. Saeid keeps things very simple, and though he's not quite as positionally astute as Trapp he's still pretty good at holding things down in the middle.
Speaking of Tchani, he provides some of the thrust and urgency in the Crew midfield. He's the kind of physical force United hasn't really seen in this area of the field thus far in 2015. There has been a bit of USMNT talk surrounding Tchani, though I think that's taking things rather too far. Still, it's not completely insane, because Tchani has started to more consistently keep his head and embrace his role within Berhalter's system. If we start to see him overdo it on the ball or get angry, though, it means United is putting him off his game.
The attacking midfield trio is high quality all the way across. Ethan Finlay scored twice last week and has been among MLS's top scoring threats since about ten games into last season. He's a multidimensional threat: He can get out on the touchline to hook in crosses, he can cut inside on the dribble, and he can use his speed to make diagonal runs in behind to go to goal. That last mode of attack is the one Columbus looks for most, as Matt Doyle illustrated in the third section of this MLSsoccer piece.
Most MLS fans know about Federico Higuain at this point. He's one of the best #10s in MLS, especially when you factor in his ability to score goals out of nothing. There's no other player in the league more known for chipping goalkeepers, and that doesn't factor in his passing, his off-the-ball movement, or his set piece ability. United is going to have to work very hard to make sure that Higuain is forced into simply looking sideways or backwards for his teammates. Berhalter was effusive in praising the Argentine veteran's work earlier this week, despite his only having one goal.
One reason Higuain's low number of goals (relatively speaking, of course) hasn't been much of a factor is that Justin Meram is on three goals coming in off the left wing. Meram is a little less complicated to defend than Finlay, because he's always going to look to cut inside. However, he's also extremely good at doing something in that situation even when everyone knows it's coming. Meram is also the best finisher on the Columbus roster, so United will need to restrict him to contested shots from outside the box rather than giving him looks from promising positions.
Up front, Kei Kamara is tied for the league lead in goalscoring. He's a very different player from the man he's tied with, Octavio Rivero. Kamara is as good in the air as anyone in the league, but he's also a threat when the ball's on the ground. Still, his aerial ability is a huge threat given how often the Crew look for crosses to generate shots:
As for subs, Hector Jimenez is a frequent option for Berhalter. He will most likely come in as a right winger, but can fill in at both right back and in the #10 role. Yes, you read that correctly. Icelandic winger Kristinn Steindorsson has seen action in every game thus far, and can play on either wing. Aaron Schoenfeld has subbed into four games thus far, though he's a far more limited target man than Kamara. In the back, Wahl and Chris Klute will be looked at if Berhalter has an injury to deal with.