The Columbus Crew return home Saturday looking for their first win in six games and their first goal in two matches. After a hot start, the Crew have fallen on tough times, dropping from first place in the Eastern Conference to fifth. They are still only two points out of the top spot and would like to get back the running with a return to form on Saturday.
The Vancouver Whitecaps have had an up and down season and find themselves in fifth place in the Western Conference with 13 points. They have struggled on the road this season, going 0-1-3 and come into the game on the back of a midweek Canadian Championship first leg loss to Toronto FC.
Jon Szekerez and I exchanged questions to give a little more perspective to the game.
Questions for Eighty Six Forever
Massive Report: The Whitecaps have been a bit up and down this season, yet to put together back-to-back wins. Has there been any identifiable cause of this inconsistency in play?
Eighty Six Forever: At home, the Whitecaps are damn near next to invincible. However, whenever they embark on the road, they look like a different team. In the confines of BC Place, the Whitecaps buzz with energy, forcing the opposition into hurried decisions, and then they pounce once they create the turnover. On the road, they're much more hesitant, and they can't seem to find the net to save their collective lives. The stats are limited, but they don't [lie]; in 4 matches on the road, the Whitecaps have scored more than 2 goals just once, and that was two weeks ago against Real Salt Lake. They have yet to post a win in those 4 matches as well, and while the RSL match was great for their confidence, the Whitecaps have been bad on the road since they joined MLS. This has been a problem for a while, and none of the four coaches the 'Caps have cycled through have solved it. Carl Robinson looks like he may be the man to finally snap that curse, but Martin Rennie looked awful good in his first few matches as Head Coach as well.
MR: Several teams have come into Columbus Crew Stadium and sat back, absorbing the Crew's possession and looked for goals on the counter. It has been fairly successful in at least getting a point on the road for teams, but frustrating for fans. Based on how Vancouver has played this season, would you expect them to employ a similar tactic on Saturday?
ESF: The Whitecaps, when at their best, are built for speed. They have tons of youthful players on the squad, although they will probably be missing a key one in striker Darren Mattocks, bothered by a hamstring injury. That might force Carl Robinson to shuffle his gameplan a bit, but he still has plenty of options at his disposal for the lone striker spot, if he does go with his standard 4-2-3-1 formation. Against the LA Galaxy in April, the Whitecaps came out swinging and tried to establish dominance early. It didn't work in the end, as the Galaxy escaped with a 1-0 win, but the 'Caps ran with them stride for stride, and easily could have come out on the other side of the coin. I'd prefer to see them come out of the gates like that, and I think Robinson is smart enough to realize that the strength of this club is heavily reliant on their speed.
MR: The attacking statistics have been spread around the Whitecaps' players it appears as opposed to one player registering most of the goals and/or assists. How is the offense designed to use the attacking options and have them all find success early on?
ESF: Well, the engine of the Whitecaps midfield is truly the $1.4 million dollar man Pedro Morales, who has been an absolute revelation in the attacking midfield role. In addition to some highlight reel passes that have gone viral, Morales has scored three goals, tied for first on the team with the recently departed Kenny Miller, and the young Kekuta Manneh. The Whitecaps have a few legitimate scoring options up top in Darren Mattocks and Kekuta Manneh, so the wealth is really just being spread, along with pleasant surprises like Sebastian Fernandez. The Whitecaps are better when Morales is driving the attack, but Manneh and Mattocks are also getting very good at breaking away from their marks and chasing down deep through balls from their midfield or defenders.
Questions for Massive Report
Eighty Six Forever: The one word I'm hearing a lot when describing the Dynamo match is, frustrating, at least from the team. How do you think the Crew will bounce back with this match against the Whitecaps?
Massive Report: It has been a "frustrating" stretch for players, fans, and really everyone involved with the Crew. After starting 3-0, Columbus is now winless in six games and hasn't scored a goal in the last two. The fast start unfortunately raised expectations above where they likely should have been and now everyone is frustrated that things haven't continued to go as well.
How this team responds will be interesting. New head coach Gregg Berhalter has hardly made an unforced change this season, but may feel it is time to switch things up. He has stated multiple times, it is about the performance and getting the right style of play over the results at this point in the process, but seemed more frustrated after the loss to the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday.
This team needs to start scoring goals, even if they aren't winning matches. The players have spoken about the chances created, but being unable to finish them. That is what I expect to see on Saturday, a desperation to put the ball in the back of the net and not just possess the ball in the midfield in front of the home fans.
ESF: 11 goals last year, 4 goals already this year for Federico Higuain. He's also got a 'Newcomer of the Year' award on his mantle. Is it safe to say he's the real deal for the Crew?
MR: Yes, Higuain is the real deal. Crew fans have been somewhat spoiled in that position dating back to the arrival of Guillermo Barros Schelotto in 2007. They have been able to watch two Argentinian playmakers unlock defenses with unique ability. I feel some fans have taken it for granted.
This is not to say Schelotto and Higuain are the same. Higuain is younger and more athletic, likes to dribble a bit more than Guillermo, and is more prone to finding the back of the net. Throughout his tenure with the Black and Gold, Higuain has played some of the more remarkable balls I've seen in MLS and, I believe, would be up there with the Henry's and Keane's of the world if Columbus were a bigger market and the Crew had been more successful in his time.
ESF: 10 goals in 9 games played for the Crew overall, which is about middle of the pack. What can they do to generate more scoring?
MR: Scoring has been the issue this season since the opening three games. Seven goals to begin the campaign was great to see, but the well has dried up since then. Berhalter has tried both Jairo Arrieta and Dominic Oduro up top separately, yet neither has found a continuous scoring punch. Arrieta has looked the more likely of the two, fitting into the lone forward role better, but only has one goal from the run of play.
The team believes they are creating the chances to score, but the results have not been there. One issue has been teams forcing them wide, which is fine, but too many of the crosses are coming in the air to smaller attackers (Arrieta, Oduro, Higuain are all listed at 6'0" or shorter) instead of low and in behind the defense.
This is all part of the learning process as this team adapts to the new system, but the sentiment is beginning to grow among the fans that a goal scorer will need to be added once the transfer window opens. Easier said than done of course.