For the first time this season, MLS teams have to grapple with playing during an international window. For D.C. United, that probably means a new-look central midfield, and for their opponents this weekend it means two key changes. The Columbus Crew will be without Wil Trapp and Zack Steffen, two of the best young players in MLS and two vital cogs to the spine of Gregg Berhalter’s side.
Trapp, who starts at the base of the Crew’s midfield, has value in terms of his defensive positioning, but it’s really his passing range that opens the game up. For Columbus, whose system hinges on using every bit of space on the field to test defenses, this is no small thing. Trapp switching the point of attack or playing a dangerous long ball to stretch the field vertically is how the bulk of their possessions go from being contained to being a problem.
Steffen, meanwhile, is among MLS’s best goalkeepers at the young age of 22. Columbus takes huge risks in how they play, pushing their fullbacks up high and gambling that they’ll be able to create enough goals to make the counter-attacking threat worth the gamble. A goalkeeper capable of as many spectacular saves as Steffen is helps make that equation work in a way that lets the Crew be the Crew.
Despite those absences, Berhalter isn’t going to change much. He’s got his system, and he’ll plug the next man on the list into his 4231 rather than change too much. As such, here’s what we’re expecting tomorrow evening:
Steffen’s replacement is maybe the biggest question of all. Logan Ketterer was the back-up for the Crew’s first two games of 2018, but Jon Kempin was on the bench last week when they got a 0-0 draw at Philly. Both players are the same age (24), but Kempin is entering his 9th professional season after signing a homegrown deal with Sporting Kansas City at 16. He’s never been the established starter anywhere, but he’s got far more pro experience than Ketterer, who as far as I can tell has not appeared in a professional game yet.
Trapp’s replacement is also unclear, though I suspect that Mohammed Abu has an edge over MLS veteran Ricardo Clark. Clark is more of a roving ball-winner, which for Columbus fits into the #8 role more than the deep-lying #6 position that Trapp is leaving open for a week. Abu was less than impressive last season when cast as Artur’s competition as the linking midfielder, but in preseason games this year got more minutes as Trapp’s back-up. He’s less likely to chase every loose ball, and he’s a better passer than Clark. It’s not an ideal fit, but I think Berhalter is going to choose the Ghanaian over the former Dynamo midfielder.
The back four is quite predictable. Harrison Afful, the league’s most dangerous right back, will fly forward whenever possible. Don’t be surprised if he shows up tucked inside of the winger, either, as Afful doesn’t just stay out by the touchline. He’s a major part of the Crew attack, and if United can keep him quiet, they’ll have gone a long way towards taking a point or three home.
In central defense, Jonathan Mensah has rebounded from a horrific start to his MLS career to become as solid as his resume (2 World Cups for Ghana, former clubs in high-end European leagues) would suggest. He’s partnered by Lalas Abubakar, who played on and off last year. It looks like Columbus did a good job grooming him for this starting role, as he’s been one of the better defenders in MLS thus far in 2018.
On the left, 19-year-old loanee Milton Valenzuela has impressed. The Newell’s Old Boys product sounded more like a Bruno Miranda-style roll of the dice when Columbus signed him, but he’s confidently stepped in as the Crew’s starting left back from day one. He’s not as attack-minded as Afful, so look for him to provide more of a supporting presence in possession than being an overlapping terror.
Whether it’s Abu or Clark starting as the defensive midfielder, Artur is a lock to start as the #8. The Brazilian’s transfer was made permanent this offseason, and it’s easy to figure out why. The Sao Paulo product passing opens up the field for the Crew, and he has enough of a motor that Columbus always seems to have him as an option in possession. He might not pile up goals or assists, but Artur is the connective tissue for this Columbus side.
Justin Meram’s offseason departure left a pretty glaring hole. Berhalter’s adjustment so far has been to move DP winger Pedro Santos over to the left side. Somewhat surprisingly, the open spot on the right has gone to Cristian Martinez, who in his two previous seasons with the Crew played just 434 minutes. An emerging regular for Panama, Martinez has embraced the opportunity, providing speed and hard work to compliment the higher-end skills of Santos and Federico Higuain.
Santos has lots of positional freedom, and we may see Martinez swap spots with him. It’s worth paying attention to, because when Martinez plays wide left, he’s far more conservative in his choices than when he’s on the right. Santos, meanwhile, is comfortable on either side and is equal parts provider and goal threat.
Higuain seems rejuvenated this season, which is bad news. He’s been quicker over short distances, which at his age and with his skillset means he’s been a real problem for opposing sides. United needs to close the space Higuain has whenever possible, because if he has a tiny window to pass or shoot through, he’s going to pick out his runner or fire one into the corner. D.C. also has to be very judicious about giving up set pieces, because Higuain’s delivery has been very accurate all season long.
Up front, Gyasi Zardes has been very effective, which is not a major surprise to everyone who realized he was a striker all along (note: none of those people are employed by the LA Galaxy). Zardes is who we thought he is: his movement off the ball isn’t the sharpest, his first touch can be clumsy, he’s not the most dangerous finisher, and it doesn’t really matter that much. Zardes will use his speed, his strength, and his willingness to work very hard off the ball to get onto the crosses and through balls that the Crew produce so often, and even if he’s not absolutely clinical, he’s probably going to score 15 or so goals this season. Make jokes at his expense if you want, but keeping him quiet is a big test for United.
Off the bench, Berhalter has some intriguing options. Hector Jimenez could start on either flank as a winger or a fullback, and while he’s more of a solid all-rounder than a standout at any one thing, he’s got some good soccer IQ and a crafty streak in the attacking end. Late draft pick Luis Argudo has quietly been a regular for Berhalter off the bench, appearing in all three games as a winger. Niko Hansen is another wide option who Berhalter trusts, and who showed some spark in 2017.
If the Crew want to protect a lead, Berhalter has no problems with bringing in an extra center back (most likely Josh Williams) and moving to a 541. Finally, target man Adam Jahn isn’t always going to get looks from Berhalter, but against a team that is probably going to sit deep and play on the counter, I expect the Crew to have him available on the bench with a view towards a possible aerial barrage in the final 15 minutes.