D.C. United faces a Columbus Crew SC side that, generally speaking, everyone seems to think they have nailed down. There’s a style of play — possession-heavy, wingers drifting inside, fullbacks pushed high, defensive midfielder dropping between the center backs, a tendency to create chances in the goalmouth — that people identify with Gregg Berhalter and his side. The assumption is that while they’ll make tweaks in their plan, you generally know their starting point as well as you might know any team’s tactics before a given game.
That might not be the most solid assumption, though. Berhalter may have a clearly defined vision of how he wants his team to play, but every once in a while he’s thrown a variation out there. Those odds have gone up in cup or playoff games, and facing a rampant United attack, one can’t help but remember last year’s decidedly un-Crew performance in the postseason against Atlanta. Columbus pressed harder than they normally do early, before eventually backing into a bunker and surviving on penalties.
United has also seen one of Berhalter’s curveballs before. In March of 2017, Columbus came to RFK Stadium and spent the whole game in a low-block 343, winning 2-0 in the process. So while there’s very much a Plan A that United should expect, you can be sure that Berhalter has some wrinkles in mind for this game.
Let’s get into the most likely look. Berhalter’s team plays a 4231 that is not all that different from how United currently plays at home. United may not drop a defensive midfielder between the center backs as often as Wil Trapp does for the Crew, but there are some broad similarities here for sure.
In goal, Zack Steffen has been making USMNT rosters, and has the talent to keep Columbus in games even when they’re giving away big chances. Steffen hasn’t been transcendent in 2018 (his Goalkeeper of the Year nomination seems a bit odd, frankly), but he’s still an extraordinarily talented player. The aforementioned success in Atlanta in the knockout round ended up being a 0-0 in which Steffen had the best single-game performance of the entire playoffs. Don’t expect any gifts tonight.
Both fullbacks push high, but there is a major difference between Harrison Afful and Milton Valenzuela. Valenzuela is fairly conventional at left back, whereas Afful finished 3rd in shot attempts for the Crew on the season. The Ghanaian will push high up the touchline, but don’t be surprised when he “underlaps” to connect with Federico Higuain. The Columbus gameplan accepts the risk of pushing these two high up, and we may see Wayne Rooney and/or Luciano Acosta drifting into the space they leave if United needs a counter.
Jonathan Mensah was suspended for their season finale, but he’ll return tonight. That leaves one spot between Josh Williams and Gaston Sauro. Sauro is the better talent, but he and Mensah play the game the same way. Both step up into play, taking the risk that they can win the ball higher up the field rather than retreating and standing off of opposing attackers. Given that United’s attack frequently sees Rooney and Acosta playing in the same space between the lines, that’s too much aggression for a center back pairing. Williams, who is a bit more adaptable as a center back partner, makes more sense in these circumstances.
Trapp will set the tempo for Columbus from his defensive midfield position, and United will surely be looking to make his life difficult as a result. That’s part of why they have him drop in between the center backs: it draws teams forward to apply pressure on him, thus opening up more space for the rest of the team.
However, one of the knocks on Trapp is that he’s not much of a ball-winner, and that leaves Artur with a ton of work to do tonight. The Brazilian is a very good player, but he has been on a bit of a plateau in the back half of the season. Is he up to sorting out all the rapidly moving parts in United’s attack? Dragging him out of position and leaving him chasing shadows is going be a crucial component for D.C. if they want to free up the likes of Acosta, Paul Arriola, and Yamil Asad.
Ahead of them, there’s uncertainty on the wing. None of the Crew’s candidates for those jobs have been very productive this season, which is a big deal in a system that really demands a secondary goalscorer play one of these roles. Niko Hansen, with three goals, is the leading scorer among the candidates to start. He’s also shockingly the Crew’s top road goalscorer (Columbus has just 11 goals away from Crew Stadium this season).
Pedro Santos is the Designated Player in this mix, and Justin Meram has at least one DP-level season (in terms of production) on his resume, but with the season on the line, Berhalter put Santos on the bench. That’s the most likely outcome tonight as well, with the more direct Hansen lining up on the right and Meram inverted on the left. However, this is not a completely settled question, and Berhalter might look to Santos (7 assists) for fresh legs and some improved creativity.
Speaking of creativity, Higuain is still pulling the strings in Columbus. He’s very different from United’s own Argentinian #10, though. Higuain is more of a passer than a dribbler, and his ability to see a pass that most players simply don’t conceive of is a threat for United. United needs to leverage their superior athleticism in central midfield, where Russell Canouse and Junior Moreno should look to give Higuain nowhere to turn and no space to operate in.
Up top, Gyasi Zardes has done quite well in his first season with the Crew. Sure, his touch is still not the best, but it’s hard to brush off a guy who scored 19 goals (including a hat trick when his team badly needed someone to step up over the weekend). Zardes plays a straightforward game, using his speed and strength to beat people to the spot when the ball gets served into the box or to hold off defenders while running the channels. Shutting him down is all about angles: if United’s center backs are able to anticipate the danger before Zardes does, they should be able to cut him off. That’s easy to say, but it’s a tough task for any MLS defender.
Off the bench, the Crew are likely to bring their non-starting winger in with their first sub no matter the scoreline. They’ve also been frequently bringing former United striker Patrick Mullins in for the final 10-15 minutes, either pushing Zardes wide or even playing a 442 if they need a goal. On the other side of the ball, the Crew are comfortable adding a third center back (which could be Sauro or Williams, but could also be Lalas Abubakar) and move into a 541 to protect a lead late on.