The Columbus Crew are off to their best start in team history but face a new challenge Saturday as they head back on the road to take on the Seattle Sounders. The Sounders are 2-1 on the year and the expectations are high for Sigi Schmid's men.
Questions for Sounder at Heart
MR: Chad Marshall was a fan favorite and defensive stalwart in Columbus for 10 years. How has he been received in Seattle and what are the thoughts on his form early on?
SaH: He's been a beast on the backline and totally changes how Seattle plays. His ability to not just win a ball in the air, but to put it into play at his teammates' feet is amazing. Sounders FC have had some good CBs - Tyrone Marshall and Jeff Parke were pretty good. Marshall is redefining. Over time the fanbase will get to know him as a person. Right now they just see how he plays. How he plays is amazing.
MR: Does the absence of Clint Dempsey open space for other players to contribute more as the team is not focusing on getting him the ball as much?
SaH: It gets others the ball at their feet a bit more. Lamar Neagle is the one who will get more touches without Dempsey on the field. Obafemi Martins will drop back more often, since he does have some creative skills. Neagle slashes in from a high wing spot. The dependence on DeAndre Yedlin's creativity out wide is heavier in non-Dempsey games. All of these things aren't about space, the players have more space when Dempsey is on the field because defenses have to key to him, but it takes every attacker doing a little bit to provide most of what Clint does.
There's also been a shift in formations. Against Montreal it was a 4-3-3. That's the third shape the team has put out and at Wednesday's practice Sigi indicated that this week may just be another shift. Trying to build a team around someone who misses time for so many reasons means also building in a team that has the flexibility to behave differently.
MR: The Sounders have had high expectations since day one but are yet to reach an MLS Cup Final. Is Sigi Schmid's seat beginning to get warm?
SaH: He's in a contract year, so it is naturally a hot seat. But the best way for the seat to not be hot, at least not be heated by fans, is to win. Earning six points in three played with two shutouts in the early season while the team still isn't fully clicking is a great way to cool things down. In the end the fans aren't going to be satisfied with a strong regular season that doesn't get silverware.
This ownership group doesn't think that way though. They are very process driven. All indications are that they like Sigi's process. They made that clear when they fired the players rather than the coach at the end of last year. When the goals for 2013 were only met at a minimum they went full Sigi for 2014. It's his year more than any other.
Questions for Massive Report
SaH: What's the defensive shift from Chad Marshall to Michael Parkhurst been like?
MR: So far so good with the transition. Parkhurst has brought international experience and a lead by example mentality. Marshall was a similar type of leader in Columbus and both have been solid. Giancarlo Gonzalez more resembles Marshall in the way he plays. He is a bigger center back who wins balls in the air and has been great with timing and in tackles so far.
The biggest change has been in philosophy. Berhalter desires the outside backs to be a major part of the attack, which would leave the two center backs isolated. The key here has been the play of midfielder Wil Trapp, who has been very good at dropping in with the back line to turn it into a three man back line at times. Parkhurst's ability to slide out wide is utilized in these situations because he has experience defending outside his own box.
SaH: Federico Higuain is pretty awesome at the final pass, but it's more than just him doing that this year. Do teams key in on him too much?
MR: Higuain does a good job being difficult to defend. He wants the ball so he will drop deep to get it or move out wide. I think teams key on him a fair amount, but maybe not as much as they should for a guy with 18 goals and 17 assists in just over a season of play (44 games). He is certainly the maestro of the team, and has finally taken the number 10 this season, but lesser names have emerged as well. D.C. had difficulty defending him in game one, the Union were better last week. It will be interesting to see how Sigi attempts to defend.
SaH: Wil Trapp is a key cog in the attack and defense. How has he improved since last year?
MR: As mentioned above, Trapp has been vital filling in defensively. Berhalter's system simply would not work without a player capable of dropping in when the time is right. Fortunately, Trapp has some experience playing this way from his two seasons at Akron. Offensively, he's not going to register a ton of statistics but he does make important passes and keeps things simple.
Trapp was named the vice-captain this season and it was evident last week why. He is much more a vocal leader in year two, consistently pointing and yelling to players, letting them know where the space and open teammates are. He also seems more comfortable on the ball this season, which obviously comes with experience and comfort with his teammates.