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D.C. United Scouting Report: Columbus Crew SC

United will have to step up to the difficult task of containing the Crew attack tonight.

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

With Real Salt Lake's embrace of vertical play this season, no club in MLS is more identified with the idea of treasuring possession than Columbus Crew SC, who will visit RFK tomorrow night. Gregg Berhalter has made it clear in his public statements, while the club's roster moves also point to a team built to retain the ball. Most of all, though, it's the play on the field that proves it. The Crew want to pass the ball out of the back. They want to have the majority of possession in every game they play, both for their methods of attacking and also to protect their defense.

D.C. United, meanwhile, is right in the middle of the pack when it comes to possession, and even that rather defies the stereotype of the Black-and-Red as a team that plays nothing but long balls. Even last week's step to add another, more technical starter to the midfield - that'd be Nick DeLeon's return to the lineup on the right, which saw Michael Farfan into the middle for Davy Arnaud - did not lend itself to a dominant possession figure for United, who also had a man advantage for over half the match.

That matters this week, because United needs to make their time on the ball count. The Crew will probably end up with more of the possession by the time the game's over, but there's a big difference between United having 48% or ending up with 38%. Making the Crew defend - that is, really defend, not "defend" by just never giving up the ball - will expose the fact that they're not exactly a lockdown team. Remember last year's playoffs, when the Revs bombed forward with conviction and purpose on their way to scoring seven times over two legs? That's the idea, even if United is not as inclined towards purely vertical soccer like New England is.

One area United can attack is the area in behind the fullbacks. Hernan Grana and Waylon Francis are both a bit vulnerable defending 1v1, and their willingness to join the attack comes with the risk of the space behind them being exposed. When United wins the ball, that space needs to be where the first look is every time. Fabian Espindola's roaming tendencies dovetail nicely with this weakness, but he'll need support. Space is only so useful; if you find yourself on the ball in space but have no help from teammates, your options quickly dwindle down to things like "backpass" or "beat three or four people on the dribble," which is usually not a fruitful choice.

Last week, United's formation - at least, before the red card - was really a two-headed beast. Going forward, it was conclusively a 4132. Defensively, however, we saw United shift into a 4141. Chris Rolfe would drop off the front line to join the midfield, while Farfan would step up high. United ended up defending in three layers: Perry Kitchen as the anchor, DeLeon and Chris Pontius as wide midfielders, and then Rolfe and Farfan a few yards further forward in the center.

That's a new look from Ben Olsen, and it was designed to combat Vancouver's 4231. It would behoove Olsen to stick with it again this week, as the Crew a) play the same formation and b) rely on their two defensive midfielders to dictate the rhythm of play. If Rolfe and Farfan can make Tony Tchani and Mohamed Saeid - it looks like Wil Trapp needs more time to overcome his concussion - more difficult to find, the Crew will have to make more passes from defense towards their attacking midfield trio. Those are longer passes, and there will be more United defensive players to bypass. In other words, United would be forcing less skillful players to attempt a higher number of lower-percentage passes. That's a great way to drive a possession team nuts.

Defensive starting positions are going to be crucial for United's left back, especially if it's Taylor Kemp. Chris Korb stays home more often and seems to be slightly faster; Olsen may be tempted to favor those attributes due to the presence of Ethan Finlay on the right wing for Columbus. The Crew love to hit him in stride, attacking the space behind the defense. What makes Finlay such a threat is that, once he gets into those situations, he has a wide range of potential ways to take advantage. He can stay wide and fire in crosses for Kei Kamara. He can cut inside on the dribble to look for his own shot. He can find Kamara (or others) for a one-two at the top of the box. The list goes on.

Being aware of the dangers of getting caught out by Finlay is crucial for United. He's a better finisher than most forwards in MLS, but he's also one of the better natural wingers in the league too. There's also the fact that the Crew will often be looking for Finlay early in moves forward. It's not that this will cause the Crew attack to run out of ideas, but rather than it will slow things down and keep the Crew's possession more predictable.

Dealing with Federico Higuain is also going to be arguably a bigger threat than ever before. Now that the Crew has surrounded him with strong attacking options, teams can't simply divert all their resources to denying him space. Higuain takes up less predictable positions than Pedro Morales, the elite #10 United faced last week. As both wingers are capable of cutting inside, Higuain can often pop up in wider positions. He's also a threat on the counter despite not having much speed. Higuain's field vision helps him here, as he makes great runs that often set him up to be the finisher rather than the creator when opposing sides are caught in transition.

Kei Kamara is in great form after garnering a fair bit of skepticism - your friendly author inclded - once the Crew said they planned on using him as a striker. A big factor here is that Kamara is about as good in the air as anyone in MLS. He's tall, obviously, but he has a great leap and a sharply-honed sense of timing. That makes him a threat for traditional headers on crosses, of course, but he's also doing a great job of knocking balls down for the trio that plays underneath of him. United needs to make sure that those aerial duels are always hotly contested, but more importantly they need to dominate when it comes to winning these second balls.

In terms of where these two teams like to play, prepare to see a lot of attacks down the middle. Per WhoScored, United creates a bigger percentage of their chances down the middle than anyone in MLS. The Crew, meanwhile, are third in the same category. The Crew are also fairly high up the charts for attacking down the right, as is probably not a surprise given the earlier bit about Finlay.

That doesn't mean that the left is not much of a threat though. Justin Meram loves to come in off the wing to set himself up for right-footed shots, but he's not always looking for the same move. Meram's a tricky player who has learned a lot since coming into MLS looking purely like a withdrawn forward. Bill Hamid will likely be back in goal, and he's going to have to watch out for the face that Meram can produce hard, accurate shots without really giving away that he's about to shoot. The Crew may attack from the right on a regular basis, but oftentimes they're looking for a finish from the opposite post.

On set pieces, United has a decided advantage. It's not just because that's been United's bread-and-butter this season (only KC and Houston have more set piece goals). The Crew were a small team in 2014 and got smaller this year with Josh Williams being replaced by Grana. Kamara will still pose a constant threat, and Emanuel Pogatetz - if he plays - will be a threat too, but United should be able to dominate inside the box if those two are well-marked. Both Higuain and Meram are threats to go directly to goal, however, so United will have to be very judicious about tackling in the attacking third.

That size difference may give United a good chance to catch the Dynamo and the Sporks at the top of the set piece scoring chart. Guys like Perry Kitchen and Chris Pontius will have an advantage over anyone that ends up marking them. Since it seems reasonable to expect Columbus to have more of the ball, it's imperative that United manages to profit from their set piece opportunities. That's not to say it should be the only means of attack, but it's the area in which United holds its biggest advantage.