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Columbus Crew projected starting 11 to face D.C. United

Opposition 11 looks at the defensive question marks Crew SC are dealing with at the moment

It’s interesting to note how different the perspectives are on D.C. United and Columbus Crew SC right now. Both have a draw that they will feel they should have been a win, and both followed that up with a dispiriting road loss. Still, the end of last season has bought the Black-and-Red some time; much of the talk has been focused on the absence of Luciano Acosta than about overhauling the system or how hot Ben Olsen’s seat is.

With the Crew, that’s exactly what’s going on. Gregg Berhalter’s dogmatic approach to the game should produce an attractive style and a lot of scoring chances, but right now the risks he takes - specifically, the space between his players and behind his back four - are more the story. Columbus still creates plenty of opportunities, but they’re usually coughing up better looks at the other end, and they’re unusually vulnerable to high-pressing teams. There’s also a lack of mental toughness about the Crew these days, and they struggle to get dialed in during the early stages of matches.

Despite all that, there are no signs that a major change is coming. The Crew are built to play out of a 4231 that spreads the field out, piles up possession, and produces a ton of crosses, and that’s what they’re probably going to be as long as Berhalter is in charge. Despite his occasional experiments with playing a back three (in preseason and the Open Cup only), the layout and approach for his Crew teams in MLS play has been the same regardless of results.

Goalkeeper Zack Steffen is probably looking forward to a return to the area, having starred at the University of Maryland, but his ability to actually play in this game is in question after a collision last week left him with a shoulder problem. As of Tuesday, the Crew were expecting him back in training, but “expecting” is not actually a sure thing. If he’s not fit, Brad Stuver will start instead.

Steffen has received a justifiable amount of hype, but at 21 years old he’s still clearly a long way from being the finished product. Thus far since coming to MLS, he was unable to unseat Steve Clark (who the Crew let leave for nothing in the offseason), and then found himself in a preseason battle for the starting job with Stuver, a former MLS pool GK who has just two MLS appearances across five seasons in the league.

Right back Harrison Afful, when in form, is in my opinion the best right back in MLS. His overlapping runs are sometimes just as dangerous as the Crew’s attacking players, and can shift the gravity of entire matches. However, Berhalter cited his performance last week when hauling him off at halftime during the Crew’s 3-1 loss in Houston, and with Columbus struggling all over, one wonders whether he’ll be immediately restored to the lineup.

Most likely, the answer is yes, but the Crew have some interesting alternatives. Connor Maloney (a player we talked about in the offseason) showed some sparks in the attacking third against the Dynamo, and Hector Jimenez has solid MLS experience as a right back too. In all cases, the Crew will have a very attack-minded player there, constantly joining the attack and stretching the field out.

On the left, Finland national team regular Jukka Raitala was brought in to replicate Afful’s attacking stance, as the Crew system is based around forcing teams to defend the entire width of the field at all times. He has so far looked like a mild upgrade over Waylon Francis, who started well when arriving in 2014 only to trail off to the point that he was second-choice for the back half of last season.

Jonathan Mensah had a rough MLS debut, and then compounded it by getting a red card late in what turned out to be a 3-1 loss. The Crew wanted to appeal the suspension, but chose not to (probably wise, because the red was deserved). Partnering Nicolai Naess - the defensive leader in the back - will come down to three choices, but none of them are ideal.

Josh Williams, a veteran who returned to Columbus after time with TFC, has been mooted as the most likely stand-in. Williams is a strong athlete and a good emergency defender, but he can struggle with anticipation. Interestingly, rookie Lalas Abubakar was the only center back available in their gameday squad last week, which makes the Ghanaian out of Dayton another candidate to get the start.

Finally, homegrown player Alex Crognale is in the running. After four years with the Maryland Terrapins, Crognale got a homegrown deal ahead of the SuperDraft. He drew praise from Berhalter during the preseason, but the demands Columbus puts on their center backs in possession are things he had problems with at Maryland. He’s outstanding in the air, though, and with the Crew offering up good set piece delivery, Crognale would be very dangerous at that end of the field if he gets the nod.

Wil Trapp is the Crew’s #6, and he’s their new captain with Michael Parkhurst in Atlanta. While Trapp’s overall ability has been consistently overstated, the fact is that he’s one of MLS’s very best deep distributors. If United allows him time to pick out mid-range passes or switch the point of attack without having to take an extra touch or turn in a different direction, the Crew attack will be far better off. United doesn’t need to provide withering pressure here so much as simply force Trapp into holding onto the ball long enough that his longer passes aren’t catching the back four by surprise.

His partner is more of an open question. Berhalter was very enthusiastic about offseason signing Mohammed Abu, a player with 4 caps for Ghana who spent years being repeatedly loaned out by Manchester City before heading to Norway. However, Abu is smaller than the undersized Trapp, leaving Columbus with a problem in terms of physical play. Berhalter is also apparently quite enthusiastic about Artur, a box-to-box midfielder they acquired on loan from Sao Paulo this winter.

Based on each player’s showings so far, we might see Berhalter deploy them based on what the opponent brings to the table. Abu is more of a pure connector, making himself available and reliably keeping the ball moving. He hasn’t had much impact on the defensive side of the ball, though, which is where Artur might come in. Artur looks like a bit more of a risk-taker positionally and will get in more tackles, but is less often going to be in the right place for others to pass to.

Ethan Finlay has a goal this season, which is big for Columbus. Finlay took forever to get going last year, and without him factoring in on the scoresheet, the Crew offense was no longer worrisome enough for teams to be afraid. Still, something’s missing, and towards the end of their game in Houston, he and Federico Higuain got into a minor argument after they misunderstood each other’s intentions.

All that said, Finlay’s speed and ability to get himself into dangerous spots remains a threat any time he’s on the field. Columbus will surely want Finlay to occupy Taylor Kemp, which would in turn simplify United’s attack. Mostly, United needs to mind their spacing against Finlay, because when there are channels for him to run or windows to pass through, he usually makes things happen.

Going back to Higuain, he has not convinced in the two games Columbus has played thus far. The 32 year old has looked sluggish physically and seems unfocused. He has avoided being a complete non-factor, but in 180 minutes he has 2 key passes, 2 shot attempts, 1 successful dribble, and only 3 fouls won. Stats aren’t everything in soccer, but they tell the story here. He’s just not making the kind of impact on games right now that is required of a #10.

The real creative force for Columbus right now is Justin Meram, who will cut inside from the left wing. Meram isn’t the most athletic player, but his technical ability more than makes up for it. Meram can beat people on the dribble, with his passing vision, and he’s always a threat to go to goal with his right foot. It’s a big test for Nick DeLeon, of course, but Steve Birnbaum - who will have enough on his plate dealing with Ola Kamara - will also need to be sharp when Meram drifts inside.

Kamara scored a stoppage time goal last week that was meaningless in terms of result, but that probably helped his confidence. He also produced an extremely sharp finish early in the match only to be denied by a tight offside call. Kamara’s ability to run in behind the defense stretches teams out vertically, and he’s also pretty good at ghosting away from his marker inside the box (which is how he scored the aforementioned late goal). He’s more like David Villa - who torched United - than Dom Dwyer, which means the Black-and-Red’s spacing and communication will need to be significantly better than last week.

Off the bench, Columbus has found time for Adam Jahn in each of their games thus far. The former San Jose target man provides a big, physical option up top. Berhalter has intriguingly also used Jahn underneath Kamara as a sort of target #10 in the past, and with Higuain being ineffective, it’s a look that might be on the table if Columbus needs a goal tomorrow night.

Elsewhere, look for the non-starter between Abu and Artur to sub in to add fresh legs in central midfield. Another possible sub is rookie Niko Hansen, a Danish-American winger-forward who has made the bench in each of the Crew’s first two games. Maloney could also be a sub if he’s not the starter, either to spell Afful or to add more grit on the right wing if Columbus is protecting a result. Jimenez is also a decent bet to sub in, as he can play any of the attacking midfield roles, as a #8, or either fullback position.