Normally when D.C. United hasn't played someone in over four months - as is the case with Columbus Crew SC - there are a bunch of changes to report on. Between injuries, tactical approaches that have replaced something that wasn't working, and (increasingly rare) coaching changes, there's usually something pretty different about a club after a third of a calendar year.
That's not the case with Columbus. Gregg Berhalter is fully committed to his team's style of play to such an extent that winning just 4 times in the first 15 games of 2015 didn't even bring a hint of a formation change or a major starter being used in a new position. Homesick fullback Hernan Grana returned to Argentina, Emanuel Pogatetz lost a starting job he never really locked down in central defense, and Wil Trapp is back after missing a few months with a concussion. The other eight starters from May 2nd's 2-0 win for United are all very much likely to play the exact same positions in the exact same system.
Berhalter's faith in his plan has paid off, too. The Crew were 4W-5D-6L after 15 games; since then, they've gone 8W-3D-3L since. They've also turned around a long-standing weakness on the road, winning 3 straight away from Ohio and 4 out of 5. OK, sure, it's against the dregs of MLS - Chicago, Colorado, NYCFC, and Philly - and in their last 6 road games they also have two separate 3 goal losses (3-0 at Montreal, 5-2 at Orlando). We're still talking about a league where only Vancouver and San Jose have more than 4 road wins all year long.
The Crew have grown a little bit of a spine, in other words, and that's a dangerous thing with this team. They're good enough at the fun side of soccer that if they're even moderately mentally strong or organized, they can threaten for silverware. It's no accident that they suddenly find themselves in the thick of the potentially amazing Supporters Shield race (eight teams are currently within 4 points of the Whitecaps at the top of the table).
So what exactly is this system Berhalter has so much faith in?
Let's start in goal with Steve Clark. Clark had a great 2014, but has been merely good in 2015. The major thing to remember with Clark is that he is being used as a sweeper keeper. It's a necessity for the way the Crew play: They push numbers forward, and it's awfully easy for opponents to simply play the ball in behind early once they've won a turnover. United shouldn't build their gameplan around fooling Clark off his line to pursue a ball he should leave for his defense, but Fabian Espindola, Alvaro Saborio, and possibly Jairo Arrieta should all be keeping that in mind if a ball happens to have just the right trajectory.
One of the new faces is right back Harrison Afful, signed in the summer window from perennial African Champions League contenders Esperance of Tunisia. Afful is a current Ghana international - he was away during this most recent friendly window - and it's been easy to see why the Crew went out and signed him. Like any Columbus right back under Berhalter, he has the stamina and the zeal to get forward and help stretch opposing defenses. He's a better fit than Grana, who seemed to prefer underlapping (i.e. coming inside) rather than staying out by the touchline; that approach doesn't really help Ethan Finlay do his thing as much. Afful has already found his legs in MLS, and got both assists in their 2-1 win at PPL Park last weekend.
In central defense, we can be sure that Michael Parkhurst is going to start. Whether it's to the right or left of center is up to who his partner is. Parkhurst has spent the whole season to the right of either Tyson Wahl or Pogatetz, but alongside Argentine newcomer Gaston Sauro he took the left-center back spot. After some fitness-related delays, Sauro debuted against FC Dallas only to depart after 7 minutes following a clash of heads. He is listed as questionable on the injury report, but apparently has passed the concussion protocol:
Gaston Sauro took part in training today. No hurdles left for him to pass, per Gregg Berhalter, to be full-go. #CrewSC— Adam Jardy (@AdamJardy) September 17, 2015
If Sauro is out, Wahl will probably continue to start over Pogatetz, and that's good news for United. It's not that Pogatetz is actually good - despite his Premier League experience, he has mostly been a poor man's Aurelien Collin this season - but rather that his aerial ability protects a major deficiency for Columbus. Wahl and Parkhurst are both small center backs, and neither has a leap to make up for it. If that's the center back pairing for Berhalter, then United really needs to make sure they put in good crosses and win plenty of set pieces.
At left back, Waylon Francis - you might remember him taking cheap shots at Eddie Johnson before holding his face after being shoved in the chest last season - remains one of MLS's better attacking fullbacks. Francis doesn't overlap so much as he supports the attack by making himself available as a passing option regularly and by forcing teams to account for his presence. Francis also has a cannon of a long-range shot and is accurate on long-range crosses. The only issue for him is that he's also on the aforementioned injury report as questionable with a quadriceps strain. If Francis misses out, Chris Klute would appear to be the natural replacement, but Berhalter has for whatever reason preferred homegrown right back Chad Barson as a deputy for Francis more than once this season.
Trapp's presence as the team's deepest-lying central midfield has drawn praise - perhaps fawning, overzealous praise in some quarters - from just about any observer. It's easy to see why: Trapp is extraordinarily accurate with his passes, and that carries into long-range passes that can open the game up for his team. Defensively, the 5'7" Trapp is much more reliant on positioning than dashing around getting into collisions and tackles. When the Crew get into the attack, Trapp will drop deep enough that he looks more like the central player in a back 3 than a defensive midfielder; hassling him is actually going to fall as much on United's forwards as it will anyone else.
The latter duty falls to Tony Tchani, who while improved in 2015 still remains something of an enigma. There are times Tchani will eschew some very straight-forward decision - an open pass, say, or staying home to slow an attack rather than jumping forward to try and win the ball back with no cover - in favor of something baffling. On the other hand, he's got 5 goals on the season and has at least lowered the number of times he does something dumb per game. If United is going to cause the Crew problems, they're going to have to put his soccer IQ to the test.
Finlay is a major threat and will probably find himself on the MLS Best XI at the end of the season. While he's not particularly involved in the Crew's build-up play, his runs are often what gives all that possession a cutting edge. Finlay is a threat running the channel, but he's just as good going out to the touchline and running off the left back's shoulder and onto a pass that comes from the middle. He's also gotten better about slashing into the middle when Kei Kamara pulls wide, making tracking him a nightmare for defenses. United's best option is to make it really difficult to feed him in the first place, because his off-the-ball play and speed are the most vital element in how Columbus wins games right now.
That job used to fall to Federico Higuain, who still functions as a #10 but now can be seen dropping a bit deeper than in past years. Higuain will often look for Finlay's run first, but he remains a very crafty playmaker with an underrated work rate. United can't give him any free kick looks from within 30 yards, as he's been very threatening in those spots this season.
On the left, Justin Meram's job is to create his own looks on the dribble and to be the man following up on the back post. Columbus is one of MLS's least left-sided teams, but when Meram gets on the ball he's always a threat. There's not a lot complicated about what he's going to do: Meram wants to set himself up for a right-footed shot, and he has the dribbling ability to do it. It's really about how he has a knack for taking surprise shots due to a deceptive shooting motion, and the converted forward still has a poacher's knack for picking out a corner.
Finally we come to Kamara, the MLS golden boot leader. He's dominant in the air to such an extent that he reminds me more of an Aussie Rules footballer than a soccer player. What Kamara has added since returning from England is better timing on his runs; rather than having one or two strides to go up and compete, Kamara has been smart about delaying his run. The result is that he gets several strides in to prepare his leap while the center back marking him takes up a more conventional position.
Kamara isn't really a back-to-goal oaf who jumps high and does little else, though. He's got speed, and his ability to peel wide can be truly disruptive for defenses. He's also very confident right now finishing with his feet, using his balance and long legs to shoot from deceptive or unlikely angles around defenders.
Off the bench, Berhalter has some good options. Winger Cedrick Mabwati was signed from Real Betis but wasn't eligible until the summer window, and he brings plenty of speed and energy. Jack McInerney is also playing for Columbus now, so Berhalter finally has a true poacher to throw into the game when the Crew need a goal. Don't be shocked if, should they trail late, Berhalter pulls a defender to pair Kamara and Jack Mac in some kind of 352. If Columbus needs to shut up shop, they've shown a willingness to add a third defensive midfielder - Mohammed Saeid most likely - or even bring on another center back and play 541 in the late stages.