Normally, the Columbus Crew would have to make some major changes to their lineup to face D.C. United. They played Sunday night, leaving less than 72 hours between the end of one game and the start of another. They’ll also have to take a flight in that timeframe. United, without a road trip and with an extra day to recover, would have an advantage.
However, the Crew probably need to win this game to keep their season alive, and they almost certainly can’t lose. In those situations, MLS coaches nearly always stick with their best possible team, give or take a player. That doesn’t make the Columbus starting eleven an extremely easy prediction tonight, but it does narrow things down. Here’s how Gregg Berhalter’s team should look:
Steve Clark will get the start in goal, but he hasn’t been in the kind of form he was in last year. Even with last year’s notorious error in the first minute of MLS Cup, the Crew still have no qualms about Clark playing shorter passes out of the back. United pressed him on this occasionally back when these teams met in Ohio, but the circumstances are different now. United presses more aggressively against everyone these days, and this game is on East Capitol Street.
The intention of pressure on Clark isn’t so much to strip him of the ball and score into an empty net (though that would be nice). Really, the object is to force him into playing long or thumping the ball out of bounds. Columbus gets rattled when possession doesn’t come their way, and they’re not suited to win aerial duels. The more often Clark hits a long ball, the more likely United is interfering with the Crew’s gameplan.
In central defense, Michael Parkhurst and Gaston Sauro should pair up once again. I could see Berhalter at least give passing thought to resting Sauro - who has had knee problems since arriving in MLS - and using Nicolai Naess at center back, but it’s doubtful that he’ll follow through. Against Patrick Mullins, and against United’s set piece attack, Sauro’s size is a must. A Parkhurst (he’s really only 5’9" but his MLS listing has mysteriously seen him grow two inches in his late 20s) and Naess (5’11") pairing would be too vulnerable to field against United.
At right back, Harrison Afful is a major threat. No right back in MLS plays as aggressively as Afful does, and as a result he has a major influence in the attacking phase for the Crew. He’s not just staying wide and hitting crosses, either. Afful will get into the box looking to be part of the passing game, and he’ll also look to go to goal himself (for example, he hit the post last week from open play). United’s left winger is going to have a lot of defensive tracking to do as a result.
On the left, the Crew have a bunch of options. Left back has been a revolving door all season long, with Waylon Francis losing the job to Corey Ashe, who has in turn lost it of late to Hector Jimenez. Jimenez has been a right-sided utility player throughout his career, but he appears to have an edge over two actual left backs. Still, if there’s a spot Berhalter could rotate, this is probably it.
In defensive midfield, Naess - initially signed as a defender - has proven a capable replacement for Wil Trapp. He doesn’t open the field up like Trapp does, but he takes up sound defensive spots and keeps the ball moving when the Crew are in possession. There seems to be a chance that Trapp makes the 18 tonight, but it seems like Columbus is taking a very cautious approach due to his concussion history.
If Berhalter wants to add fresh legs centrally, Naess might be the player that loses out. Mohamed Saeid could move into the #6 role, with Tony Tchani dropping into his more natural position, and either Dilly Duka or Justin Meram playing as the attacking midfielder. Federico Higuain is dealing with some abdominal muscle issues that will likely keep him out, so Berhalter has to choose between players who are better in other roles.
On the right wing, Ethan Finlay has come to life after a somewhat disappointing start to the season. As of July 31st, he had 1 goal and 6 assists, which is a bit of a nosedive for someone who had 12 goals and 13 assists in 2015. Since then, though, Finlay has 5 goals and 2 assists in the Crew’s last 8 games, and appears to be getting himself into dangerous positions on a very regular basis.
Over on the left, Meram has always caused United problems. Most of the time, he’s looking to either cut inside for a right-footed shot, or play a quick combination to break in behind. Protecting the channels and forcing him wide will make the US-born Iraq international less of a threat. He’s probably not going to beat anyone with speed, but he’ll surely provide another major test in decision-making for Nick DeLeon at right back.
Ola Kamara has been sensational since replacing Kei Kamara in the Crew lineup. Despite not scoring his first MLS goal until late May, Kamara has 15 goals on the season (including five in the last three games). Rather than being aerially dominant like his former teammate, the Crew’s current Kamara succeeds because of his movement. He dips into the midfield more often, and he has a knack for running the channels to find space behind defenses.
From the bench, Berhalter’s options are rather limited. Adam Jahn has been used as an attacking midfielder off the bench in two straight games, but he’s characteristically seen as a traditional target striker. Jimenez could be pushed up as a winger if Ashe or Francis is subbed in. If Duka isn’t a starter, he’ll come in for someone in the three attacking midfield spots and add some danger on the dribble. If Berhalter is really desperate for a goal, he’ll probably bring in a defensive midfielder (Trapp if he makes the trip, or Rodrigo Saravia if not) for a defender and go to a 352 or 343.