It's been quite a while since D.C. United took on Columbus Crew SC, but both clubs have a pretty defined style of play and are built around largely the same players who participated in United's 2-0 win back on May 2nd. The match-up is also a clear clash of styles; United's street-smart game can lack in aesthetic quality, while the Crew's expansive soccer has sometimes been punished for naivety. The team that is pulled further away from their game is likely to suffer in any game of soccer, but tonight the costs will likely be more pronounced. Here's how United can make sure it's Columbus playing an unfamiliar game:
The Crew's entire gameplan, more than any other team in MLS, is based around using every available inch of space. Their 4231 lineup often looks like a 343 when they've got the ball, with the center backs pushing out to the touchline, the fullbacks pushing up very high, and the wingers making room for them by taking up spots in the channels. It's been a long time since United dealt with a team that is this aggressive in terms of positioning (as opposed to pressure).
If Columbus stretches United out, they're going to have a field day. Teams that end up leaving tons of horizontal space against the Crew tend to lose, because the Crew have plenty of legitimately skillful and intelligent players. They're a threat to play through balls via Federico Higuain or Wil Trapp, but they can also tear teams apart with their movement. Leaving someone like Ethan Finlay with spacious channels to run is a terrible idea if you want to avoid having to score 3-4 goals to win.
United better have put a ton of work into maintaining a good, compact team shape all over the field this week, or else they're going to be dealing with a real problem tonight. If the Crew open a team up, they tend to punish them. It's the squads that stay organized and communicate well defensively that frustrate Columbus. This doesn't just apply to when the Crew are in possession in United's defensive third, either: As a road team, only Montreal puts up more long key passes per game than Columbus.
Cut Trapp out of the game
That last little note applies here. Trapp's ability to switch the point of attack or play an attacker in behind is a big factor for the Crew (it's no coincidence that Columbus got back to winning games when he returned from a long absence due to a concussion). If Trapp has time and space, the possession number is going to get ugly for United.
Trapp will drop very deep in possession, so this job is more on the forwards than it is on the central midfielders. Trapp has to be pressured. It's not really about forcing turnovers as much as denying him the truly dangerous forward passes. If all he can do is play horizontally - or even just to fellow holding midfielder Tony Tchani - Trapp's influence is going to be significantly dimmed.
Lock down the left side
This one didn't take too much thought. Finlay has 8 goals and 13 assists this season; the latter figure is just one off the league lead. So yeah, if he has a bad game it stands to reason that United's chances of winning go up. On top of that, Kamara is very comfortable pulling out to the right wing (his old position during much of his time with Sporting Kansas City). Philadelphia struggled badly with Finlay's runs into the middle when Kamara came out wide because they didn't catch on that said runs only came when the Crew surged forward on the break.
United needs to be alert to the many ways Finlay ends up being picked out. There's the traditional run down the touchline and in behind the fullback, of course, but the 343 look we discussed before leaves him getting in behind by running the channel instead. That's how he gets into goal-scoring positions, and even if he can't go to goal he'll end up in a good spot to cut the ball back against the grain for someone else.
The good news is that Finlay's play isn't really the sort of thing Taylor Kemp struggles with the most. He won't be physically pushed around, as Finlay is not a powerfully-built player. However, the Crew have become very good at picking out when Finlay has a seam to run into, so Kemp's going to need some help. Don't be surprised if Nick DeLeon ends up playing left midfield in this one, and United needs to be really sharp in the middle third to prevent early passes for Finlay.
Good service into the box
Gregg Berhalter has put together his team philosophically. He wants his team to be great on the ball and at their best when the ball is on the ground. Like any dogmatic approach to the game, it has a risk: The Crew are MLS's worst team in the air defensively. If you saw their last game against the Union, you probably noticed the borderline panic that ensued when Philly sent Conor Casey and Fernando Aristeguieta on. Berhalter ended up bringing in two defenders, moving his team into a 541 with Kamara playing in the midfield, and everyone in yellow looked rattled until the final whistle.
This may be United's trump card. On set pieces, the Black-and-Red are going to have a big advantage inside the Crew box. However, that advantage will be wasted unless the service is good. Last week in Colorado, United only really came up with one good set piece, but they made it count. Against the Crew, the service has to be better, because the size advantage is begging to be put to use.
This also applies to the run of play. Fabian Espindola's ability to get to the endline and chip balls back across should be something United looks for, and as fans we should really be hoping for numerous crossing opportunities from both fullbacks. Alvaro Saborio has not played well in recent weeks, but this game is tailor-made for him to get back to the kind of soccer we saw in his first couple of games.