These are the types of games that, as fans, you should want Columbus Crew SC playing in late in the year. In perhaps the most attractive matchup on Saturday's schedule, the Black & Gold travel to New Jersey and Red Bull Arena to take on the Eastern Conference-leading New York Red Bulls on Saturday.
Both clubs are coming off a loss, both of the disappointing variety against desperate teams. Both are still eyeing a conference title. The two teams have split their first two meetings, both 2-1 results.
Here are some things to keep in mind when the two clash on Saturday night.
Last hope for the Eastern Conference
Hopes of a conference title are slim, but any that remain essentially start (or end) this game, which will be a six-pointer in that sense. New York leads the EC race by just one point right now, but it has games in hand, which provide an extra opportunity, at this point, to pick up the points necessary to stay on top. So if Columbus wants to remain in that picture, it needs to land a blow this weekend, steal three points from NYRB and add three to its own total.
If you want to be top dog, you have to beat the alpha. If Columbus can't do that this weekend, it's time to move on to other goals.
The xG battle
If only soccer were played in a vacuum. Then we'd be guaranteed to see a barnburner between Kei Kamara and Bradley Wright-Phillips on Saturday. Those two strikers lead MLS in expected goals (they also happen to have been pretty darn good in actual goals), which means both will constantly be putting themselves in dangerous positions. Will this be last year's Golden Boot winner against this year's?
Speaking of dangerous players...
New York has a few. BWP sits in the league's history books. Sacha Kljestan is second in MLS in expected assists, has been one of MLS' best chance creators and is fourth with 68 key passes (two behind Federico Higuain). Felipe Martins is seventh in the league in key passes, providing a deeper-lying playmaker to Kljestan's attacking presence. Loyd Sam is actually just outside the top 10 in expected assists, coming off the right wing, while Mike Grella turned out to be a diamond in the rough for Red Bulls and has found the back of the net seven times and has done things like this:
The team builds centrally through Felipe and Kljestan, but it is Dax McCarty that makes it all tick. Long considered one of the overlooked gems of MLS, he does nothing pretty but just does work. On perhaps the league's best team, he touches the ball more than anyone, and that's not by coincidence. His .137 touch percentage is actually second in all of MLS, meaning he's as important to his team as anyone.
Who replaces Trapp?
Crew SC is not the same when Wil Trapp is not in the lineup. But with the homegrown star off helping the U-23 Men's National Team qualify for the Olympics, and doing things like this...
...the Black & Gold will have to adjust. Our own Patrick Guldan compared the two potential replacements — Mohammed Saeid and Kevan George.
Trapp actually had one of his least impressive performances of the season last week against the Portland Timbers, and that was part of the reason Columbus was chasing Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe around the field. But his struggles last weekend don't change the fact that he's integral in his defensive positioning, breaking up of the attack and, critically, transitioning into the attack. Every pass he makes may not look like the one above, but he's constantly making the right choices in distribution to get Crew SC going forward again.
We've seen in the past that both replacements have shortcomings. Saeid is a solid option on the ball and a quality passer, but he's been caught out positioning-wise and has occasionally been victimized by attackers finding space in behind him and in front of the defensive back four. George, meanwhile, rarely gets caught in that manner, but doesn't bring a whole lot else to the lineup. The team has generally seemed just a step off in his appearances this season, and he does little as a pivot. He's a pure defensive body.
As Guldan says in the above-mentioned piece, perhaps George is a better option against a team that is going to bring some firepower. Kljestan and Felipe Martins can exploit that space behind Saeid if his not in the right place. But the Red Bulls will also press, and can George handle that with the ball at his feet? Can he make the right choices in distribution to break that press? That's an area where maybe Saeid has an edge.
Regardless of who gets the nod, they will need to play at a peak level to keep things together in the middle.
New York's absence
Trapp is a big hole for Columbus to fill, but the Red Bulls have their own issue — no Matt Miazga. The rising youngster will be with Trapp and the U-23 team, and that will be a gaping hole for NYRB to fill. There were questions about the team's defense coming into the season, and Miazga is one of the biggest reasons the team has been able to overcome those. He still can flash his inexperience, but he's been a massive presence for the unit and is great covering as a mobile center back.
Columbus needs to take advantage of this absence, because the Red Bull defense has been very different without Miazga. The question is whether Crew SC is set up to do that. New York is perfectly comfortable allowing Columbus to possess, then pressing and forcing turnovers and getting in transition. That means NYRB can remain compact — minimizing Miazga's missing skills — and then hit on the break.
The Black & Gold are going to have to find ways to attack in space, which means quick transitions when they get them (something that won't be helped by the absence of Trapp). It means Ethan Finlay needs to take advantage of chances to get behind fullback Kemar Lawrence, something that can be done. His ability to find that space and stretch the center back pairing will be needed to open things up.
While New York has proven to have a more flexible comfort zone, Columbus has often been a little befuddled if it can't play to its strengths. At the very least, Crew SC will have to make NYRB work for its chances — cough up the ball to the press in the midfield and you can kiss points goodbye.
Enjoy, Crew SC fans
Columbus will be playing in one of the weekend's must-see games. A lot of matches are important at this time of year, with so much shuffling in the standings, but this weekend the Black & Gold will again have many eyes on them, as neutrals will almost certainly be dialing up MLS Live to watch this one.
This club has come a long way in less than two years. Everyone wants trophies and championships, but take a step back and consider the context. Crew SC is playing fun, attractive soccer and winning a lot of games in doing so. The Black & Gold have had some great moments and seasons in their history, but there have also been times when it hasn't been so much fun to be a fan, and that time wasn't all that long ago. The club may not yet be consistent enough to truly be a threat for an MLS Cup — though we all know anything can happen in the playoffs — but don't forget to enjoy the journey a little bit. There's something on the line in the final weeks of the season, and it's going to be a lot of fun.