There are some interesting similarities between D.C. United and the Columbus Crew right now. They’re short-handed at the same positions, they’re both looking at this game as more important than their upcoming road games against teams from the Western Conference, and they’re both built around a 34-year-old attacking player. However, much of the story around Caleb Porter’s first season in charge of the Crew is what he’s changed from Gregg Berhalter’s system. It’s only a few tweaks, but they’ve been fairly significant.
Here’s what United should expect tonight in terms of their starting lineup and the distribution of roles within that group:
Goalkeeper: Zack Steffen
The USMNT’s #1 is, for a little bit longer, still in MLS, which makes this a bit of unfortunate timing for United. There aren’t a lot of weaknesses in Steffen’s game, though it wouldn’t surprise me to see United step out of a low block when he opts to play goal kicks short. That said, the Crew aren’t committed to this under Porter like they were under Gregg Berhalter, so they might ditch the short option as a response.
Right back: Hector Jimenez
The Crew are going through a fullback shortage similar to United’s. Normal first-choice right back Harrison Afful is out with a jaw injury, much like Joseph Mora (he even suffered that injury on the same weekend). Jimenez started his MLS career as a right midfielder, but over time became a utility player, and for the last couple of seasons has been predominantly used as a fullback (on both flanks). He’s basically a somewhat lesser version of Nick DeLeon.
Porter could rotate Josh Williams in here, but he might be needed in the middle. Connor Maloney is another option, but Porter hasn’t given him a second of playing time, and he has just 155 MLS minutes since being drafted in 2017.
Center back: Jonathan Mensah
The experienced Ghanaian is a big part of the Crew’s tendency this year to win close games. Mensah is well-rounded — smart, good in the air, decent quickness and speed — and just doesn’t make many mistakes. When paired with Gaston Sauro, he tends to not step as high as he would otherwise.
Center back: Gaston Sauro or Josh Williams
Sauro is, unfortunately, a pretty excellent center back, and the Crew have been a noticeably stronger team whenever he’s been on the field since he joined them in 2015. However, major knee injuries have kept him out for most of that time, and he has just 29 appearances in 4+ seasons. That history gives Porter a pretty solid reason to rotate the Argentine, as keeping him healthy for the long haul is probably going to be crucial for their hopes this season. Josh Williams is the most likely option to step into the fray if Porter opts to give Sauro a game off.
Left back: Waylon Francis
Like I said before, the Crew are having a fullback injury crisis. Milton Valenzuela, their excellent young left back, suffered a season-ending injury in preseason, and the Crew actually made a quick trade to bring Francis back to Columbus after having traded him to Seattle a year earlier.
Francis is an unremarkable left back. Decent all-around ability, and he’s managed to stop being the Concacaf-y provocateur he was when he first got here. Porter might want to rotate here, but his only real option is to play Jimenez on the left.
Defensive midfield: Wil Trapp
Trapp is by far the Crew’s key in possession. He attempts about 15 more passes a game more than anyone else on their roster, and if you can take his ability to switch the point of attack off the table, you have gone a long way to disrupting the Crew altogether.
One thing of note: Porter’s usage of Trapp is different than Berhalter’s. Trapp doesn’t drop in between the center backs as often, which in turn means the fullbacks don’t push up as high early in attacking moves. They’ll still get up there, but it’s more of a late overlap than a starting point.
Box-to-box midfield: Artur or Ricardo Clark
Artur has arguably been the Crew player to suffer the largest drop-off under the new regime. Porter still values him, and he’s still heavily involved, but the Artur that was a force of nature under Berhalter has looked like a merely solid two-way midfielder in 2019. Porter may opt to rotate here, and the best bet is the veteran Clark. He’s not as technical or mobile as Artur, but he would bring a robust physical presence and some experience to the fold.
Right wing: Pedro Santos or Robinho
Santos is normally best as an inverted winger on the right, but Porter shook things up against Portland on the weekend. Santos was on the left for most of the first hour, and Robinho (not the Brazil international) was on the right. It didn’t really work, and the Crew got their goal only once Santos was back on the right. Santos takes too many shots for someone who isn’t particularly good at shooting, but he frequently gets into good positions, so he’s a threat nonetheless.
If Porter wants to rest the Portuguese winger, he could move Robinho over here and bring in someone else on the left. We’ll get into the “someone else” once we get to that position.
Attacking midfield: Federico Higuain
At 34, Higuain is still the Crew’s attacking key, but Porter has changed how he’s used. Under Berhalter, Higuain was tasked with staying high, but in 2019 he drops deeper more often to prompt their attack. Still, the author of United’s 2018 playoff demise remains dangerous, particularly on set pieces. Given how D.C.’s defensive midfield has taken a step back after starting the season brilliantly, a return to form to shut Higuain down would be quite nice.
Porter might want to rotate, but with options including a formation change or inserting the inexperienced Eduardo Sosa, he’ll probably ask Higuain to play this conference game before looking to give him a break on the weekend in Houston.
Left wing: Robinho or Pedro Santos, but maybe others
Robinho was a bit frustrated to be pulled at the hour mark against Portland, but that boosts his chances of playing in this one. He’s been a force on the defensive side of the ball, winning plenty of tackles when the Crew opt to press, but he’s struggled to gain much traction as a chance generator.
Porter could again have Santos over here, but could also turn to Justin Meram (who replaced Robinho on Saturday) or Niko Hansen.
Striker: Gyasi Zardes
Zardes thrived under Berhalter, but thus far he’s been a little less of a factor under Porter. 3 goals in 7 appearances is a pretty good return, but he’s getting fewer shots (1.9 per 90 in 2019 vs. 2.6 per 90 last year), and having to be more involved in the passing game than simply finishing off moves. He’s averaging 5 more pass attempts per game under Porter, and it’s mostly because he has to drop off a bit more often when Higuain goes deeper in possession.
Still, Zardes is fast, and has a knack for escaping his marker to get on the end of service. Ignore the hostility the Euro-player-only snob portion of the USMNT fanbase. Zardes is still a threat.
Meram should worry United fans, as he’s scored a couple of great goals against D.C. in the past, but he hasn’t really recovered from his loss of form during his short spell in Orlando. Porter could also turn to Patrick Mullins, and might be more willing to play him wide than Berhalter was. Rookie target man JJ Williams is 6’4” and powerfully built, though it’s worth noting that Donovan Pines completely shut him down in last year’s NCAA tournament.
Sosa could also factor in, particularly as a more attack-minded no. 8 if the Crew get desperate. Last week, they moved to a 3142 in the final moments, adding Williams to the front line and pushing Sosa up with Higuain. Don’t be surprised if they go a similar route if United happens to be holding a late lead.
Other than that aforementioned desperate formation switch, no. Porter famously became more pragmatic over time with the Timbers, but thus far in Columbus he’s stuck to his guns. He wants to have a possession-oriented, attacking team, and the Crew only really get direct when they’re in trouble late in games. The time may come where he makes the turn, but as of now, they’re likely to be patient, play out of a mid-block, and try to keep the ball on the ground whenever possible.