Can they keep the offensive rhythm?
With Federico Higuain and Kei Kamara suspended, Columbus will have some turnover in the starting lineup. Kamara has appeared in 32 of the 33 games this year and his impact has been immense, 22 goals and eight assists. Higuain has also appeared in 32 of the team's 33 games on the year. That type of offensive contribution will certainly be missed, but I'm also interested in how the two replacements will integrate into the lineup.
Kamara was replaced in the starting lineup by Aaron Schoenfeld for Crew SC's June game in Philadelphia. He was one of many first teamers given the day off and it showed. Columbus was hammered by a 3-0 scoreline and Kamara made a late appearance with Schoenfeld. For his September international appearance, Kamara was replaced by Jack McInerney. Crew SC stumbled again with a 3-0 loss with FC Dallas content to hit on the break.
Higuain was held out of the midweek match against the Vancouver Whitecaps in April. Ben Speas was his replacement as the team was an otherwise first choice lineup and there was significant continuity in play as Speas played a similar role as Higuain. Crew SC tied 2-2.
Now missing two big pieces, the team will have to adapt to players who aren't Kamara and Higuain. Speas did a reasonable Higuain imitation in April as Crew SC modified the game plan on the road to stay compact and attempt to counter. It worked and Columbus grabbed a draw.
When Kamara has been missing, the story changes. There isn't anyone on the team that can do a reasonable Kamara interpretation. Schoenfeld can hold up the ball and is a physical presence, but certainly isn't the same class of finisher. McInerney is another type of player altogether. He's not adept at getting on the end of direct balls and crosses.
With both players out, Crew SC will have to adapt better than they have in the past to changes in the first eleven. If Columbus plays with usual width and hopeful crosses, it will be easier to defend. Adapting to the players on the field will be the key to keeping the offense humming. That may mean a slightly more direct offensive scheme. Pushing forward with pace or switching the point of attack to stretch a United defense that likes to stay compact.
If Crew SC have a couple dozen crosses, they won't be successful.
Have they found the answer on defense? The Toronto game last week was a sign of effective defending. The first sign in months. Sebastian Giovinco was shackled and unable to find space between lines and time to open up the defense. The Toronto forward line was ineffective in getting clean chances.
Gaston Sauro had an outstanding game. He was a phyiscal force of nature, reading the game well and able to make the proper challenge and step into the midfield when he needed to. It was a performance that Tyson Wahl isn't capable of and one that Emmanuel Pogatetz wasn't able to do consistently.
While Sauro might have earned the plaudits, it wasn't just him. Michael Parkhurst's reading of the game was exceptional too. He was confident in cutting out passes, clearing danger, and making the needed tackle. It was a performance on par with his 2014 season. He looked comfortable out there, perhaps a sign of trust in the new signing.
Both Sauro and Parkhurst were shielded very effectively by a great game from Wil Trapp and physical and effective midfield defense from Tchani. Trapp tracked runs through midfield very well while Tchani functioned as an advanced destroyer. That relieved the pressure on the back line. It's a performance many expected from them before the season.
D.C. United has plenty of players that can move between midfield and the attacking line. If players like Chris Rolfe or Chris Pontius find the ball in space, that's a big warning sign that the Toronto game was a fluke.
The final answers
Both questions struck me as I thought about this game. The first question they dodged all season. Crew SC have been fortunate that two main pieces haven't had to miss time. Kamara and Higuain will be back and well rested for the playoffs. The offense will be back to full strength by the time the first playoff game kicks off.
The other question gets at the heart of the 2015 team. This was expected to be an Eastern Conference and MLS Cup contender. They've been wildly inconsistent and that comes down to the defense. Top teams usually have an answer to questions like which defense will show up. Today is the last chance to answer the biggest question that the 2015 regular season comes to a close and the margin of error gets that much smaller.