D.C. United has already played the Columbus Crew SC this season, falling 3-1 less than a month ago in Ohio. Since then though, the Crew have stumbled, losing 2-1 at home to the Vancouver Whitecaps and then falling 1-0 in Chicago despite largely dominating throughout. It’s not quite United’s 203 days (and counting!) between wins, but it’s a hiccup worth paying attention considering Columbus starting the season looking as good as anyone in MLS.
Little has actually changed for them in terms of their lineup, though. The 4231 designed to spread opponents out is still the plan, and it’s quite likely United will face nine or ten of the starting eleven from March’s defeat:
Zack Steffen took a lot of grief last week, as it was his poor pass out of the back that gave Chicago the only goal of the game. He nearly replicated that same mistake less than five minutes later, and generally looked really shaky with the ball at his feet. United needs to press and press and press some more, because stray passes and turnovers in the back are probably the best way to get goals against the Crew. As for the rest of his game, unfortunately for United Steffen is one of the very best goalkeepers in MLS, so finding a way to get an easy goal is pretty appealing.
Most of the back four is unchanged. Jonathan Mensah is still the ringleader in the middle, Harrison Afful is still a huge threat pushing high up the right flank, and Milton Valenzuela has grown increasingly comfortable going forward as well (as United knows all too well from last month’s game). The real question is whether veteran Josh Williams or second-year man Lalas Abubakar will get the start at center back.
Williams was brought in for last week’s 1-0 loss in Chicago, and the Crew held the Fire to 5 shot attempts all game long. If not for Steffen’s passing, they’d have gotten a shutout pretty comfortably. Abubakar also struggled against United in the last game, making several risky plays and only avoiding a second yellow card via some atrocious officiating. Gregg Berhalter gave him the hook at halftime as a result, and while the Crew rode the game out thanks largely to their ability to keep the ball, it was notable that Williams produced a mistake-free 45 minutes. On the other hand, Abubakar will have less of a problem keeping up with Darren Mattocks in terms of speed, which means Berhalter has a tricky decision to make.
Wil Trapp wasn’t present for the last meeting, which means United wasn’t seeing them at their best. The diminutive captain is the hub of their midfield, screening the back four by using his anticipation and positioning while also being the starting point for their build-ups going forward. Trapp’s distribution over long distances is outstanding, but Chicago did reveal that Columbus can be overly reliant on passing to him out of the back. If United can get Mattocks and Luciano Acosta to cut off passing lanes to Trapp, they’ll be making it harder for the Crew to execute their gameplan.
Artur will pair with Trapp, though interestingly he was pulled off before the hour mark against the Fire. Nonetheless, the Brazilian has a great motor, making him the ball-winner in this pairing (in fact, United would have it much better if Trapp is having to get physical instead, because he can easily be out-muscled). Artur also has a good eye for when to make a late run into the box, which is tough to defend when Columbus already manages to flood that zone with numbers anyway.
Federico Higuain will start as the attacking midfielder, and United will have to do a better job against him this time around. The Argentine veteran’s ability to find pockets of space in transition is extremely dangerous, and United needs to make sure that someone has an eye on him at all times. They’ll also have to do a far better job of not conceding set pieces, as the Crew scored the game-winner from that route (and frankly could have had 2 or 3 more) thanks in part to Higuain’s delivery.
The wingers should be Pedro Santos and Cristian Martinez, but it’s not certain which player will start on which side. In the last meeting, Martinez was on the right and Santos the left, which is largely how Columbus has set them up this season. However, last week they switched spots (possibly to match the speedier Martinez up against Drew Conner, the slower of Chicago’s wingbacks). My hunch is that they’ll revert to normal, with Martinez using his speed down the right while Pedro Santos will drift inside looking to combine from the left.
Up top, Gyasi Zardes is proving to be a very smart signing as Ola Kamara’s replacement. No one will confuse Zardes for a technical wizard, but he works hard and is frequently able to get open in the Crew’s system, which means he has 4 goals in 6 starts thus far. With just a little bit more sharpness, he’d be on 7 or 8 by now, which highlights the danger for United. The Black-and-Red’s transition defense was not good at Crew Stadium, and this time around it has to be a lot better to keep Zardes in front of the defense rather than sprinting in behind.
Off the bench, Niko Hansen appears to be climbing back into the reckoning as an option on the flanks. Adam Jahn remains a late-game target man only at this point, meaning that if United is trying to hang onto a lead in the final 10 minutes, you can expect him to come in for a defensive midfielder or center back. Hector Jimenez is a solid utility option that can play as a fullback, a winger, or even as a #10 or #8 in midfield. Berhalter is also comfortable going to a back five to protect a late lead, so we could see someone like Higuain make way for Abubakar or Williams in the closing minutes if this game is close and United is knocking on the door.