Normally an article about D.C. United having to go on the road to play last year’s losing MLS Cup finalist would be about how daunting a challenge this week’s game is going to be. The Columbus Crew have not changed their system, there have been no coaching changes, and ten of the eleven starters from last year’s team are still in place. Should be tough, right?
Well, not exactly. The Crew are 20th out of 20 MLS clubs right now, falling behind the lowly Chicago Fire after Wednesday’s results. Kei Kamara was that sole departure, though his replacement Ola Kamara is red hot (8 goals in 9 appearances since the big trade that sent Kei to New England). That run includes going scoreless in his first two starts following the big change, so producing goals has not really been an issue even with Federico Higuain out due to hernia surgery.
The real issues have been everywhere else. Ethan Finlay has more or less maintained his rate of assists from last year’s 12 goal/13 assist season, but he has 1 goal on the year. Justin Meram has tried to take up the slack - his 5 assists in 2016 already match a career high - but there’s too much weight for the American-born Iraqi national team regular to lift. The midfield has seen Wil Trapp regress while injuries have kept either Tony Tchani or Mohamed Saeid from showing any steadiness in the #8 role (though Saeid’s 91.4% passing accuracy is tied with Osvaldo Alonso for the league’s best mark in that category).
It gets worse in the back. Michael Parkhurst hasn’t been great, Gaston Sauro - a big, physical defender that the Crew don’t have a replacement for - has missed significant time with a knee injury, and Waylon Francis has come back to earth after a strong debut season in MLS. Harrison Afful has been alright, but that’s about it. Steve Clark looks to be in the bottom half of MLS starting goalkeepers right now as well.
Gregg Berhalter has stuck with the same formation and more or less the same style of play. It’s admirable for a coach to show faith in good players being able to get things right, but it’s also far enough in the season that you have to wonder whether 2015 was just lightning in a bottle for Columbus. Nonetheless, this is a team that plays out of a 4231 that has to be presented as it looks on paper and how they look during attacking phases:
And here’s how the Crew look when they go into the attack:
The idea is to get plenty of numbers forward, with the fullbacks carrying most of the crossing load while the "wingers" often tuck inside to make supporting runs. To start possession, or to keep the ball when it’s cleared, the Crew will often have Trapp drop in between the center backs, who will often have to track wide to defend along the touchline when play transitions forward quickly.
At the base of all of that is Clark, whose comfort with the ball and with straying well off his line allows the Crew to start moves further up the field even when their goalkeeper is in possession. However, this is a risk that has come back to haunt Clark a few times (including in the first minute of last season’s MLS Cup). Clark has not been able to produce the top-drawer saves he managed last year, either, and in general he’s not the best on aerial service. However, when charging off his line, he’s one of MLS’s best.
The Crew’s lineup is normally pretty stable outside of injuries, but this week’s 1-1 draw with Toronto FC (the version without Giovinco, Bradley, Altidore, Johnson, or the recently released Damien Perquis) likely forces rotation. We’ll start at right back, where Harrison Afful is a great example of a player fitting a system perfectly. However, if he has to be rested after going 90 on Wednesday, he’ll be replaced by either utility player Hector Jimenez or defender Chad Barson. Jimenez doesn’t have Afful’s defensive awareness, while Barson is too conservative for the Columbus system as a fullback.
In central defense, a lack of reasonable options means an already unlikely rotation isn’t going to happen. Michael Parkhurst and Tyson Wahl are a bit too similar in mentality, and both really need a partner who can dominate in the air. Alvaro Saborio and/or Alhaji Kamara should be able to win a lot of headers in this game, so United should look to create some crossing opportunities if they can. On top of that, it’s important to note that the Crew are highly vulnerable on set pieces right now.
Francis held the left back role for all of last year, but his loss of form this season has seen Corey Ashe arguably push ahead of him. However, with Ashe playing 89 minutes against TFC, this seems like the most likely spot for Berhalter to inject some fresh legs. Francis loves to go forward, though this season he hasn’t been very selective about when and how aggressively he does so. If Ashe is kept in the lineup, he’s a little less technically gifted than Francis, but will bring a level of intensity and physicality (yes, even though he’s only 5’5") that the otherwise soft Crew can use.
In central midfield, Berhalter rarely gives Trapp a rest. United will want to key on the diminutive homegrown product, as he is the key to the Crew’s ability to keep possession. It’s not so much about disconnecting him from the short-passing game as it is preventing him from switching the point of attack. Trapp’s passing over distance is a big part of what Columbus does. If he’s rested, Rodrigo Saravia will step in, but he lacks the vision and passing accuracy of Trapp.
The starter next to him is not easy to guess. Tchani has struggled with injuries this year, and when he’s been healthy his form has been poor. However, Saeid seems better as either a #6 or even further forward than the role he has most often played for the Crew. Saeid could be needed further forward, so Berhalter might not have a choice but to send Tchani out for back-to-back games despite his problems with fitness this season.
On the right, Ethan Finlay was subbed off at halftime, so we should expect to see him from the start. Even if he’s totally lost his goalscoring touch from last year, Finlay’s speed is a threat worth worrying about. He’ll look to get to the endline, be it via staying wide or by running the channel.
In the middle, there are a lot of candidates to step in for Higuain. Dilly Duka was recently signed and started Wednesday in this role, but after months without playing during a failed bid to find a European club, he’s not likely to get back-to-back starts right now. Jimenez has been used as a #10 more than once by Berhalter, while Saeid played this role against United in last year’s 5-0 rout. Meram spent the last 23 minutes of Wednesday’s game here as well. Jimenez, Saeid, and Meram all have a roughly equal shot of getting the nod; if Meram is the starter centrally, Cedrick will come in on the left wing.
Up front, there’s a big difference between O. Kamara and K. Kamara. The Crew’s only remaining Kamara wants to run the channels, and doesn’t have the remarkable, game-changing aerial ability or hold-up play that Kei Kamara offered. However, his simpler style has not stopped him from scoring left and right, so United is going to have to be very sharp in keeping their shape and anticipating when the Crew will attack the gaps (particularly the central channel).
Every player mentioned here, if they don’t start, is a candidate to sub into the game. Panamanian winger Cristian Martinez is also an option on the left flank, though the 19 year old is more of a wild card than a proven, reliable commodity at this point. Conor Casey is also a Crew player, but the veteran target man has played just 8 minutes this season due to a red card (yes, he managed to get sent off despite playing 8 minutes), injuries, and the early-season logjam at forward.