Despite much worrying, hand wringing, and media speculation the 2015 Major League Soccer season will in fact begin on time. This means Columbus Crew SC heads to warmer climates, to face the Houston Dynamo, in what is now a cross-conference match.
Since BBVA Stadium opened in 2012 the Black and Gold are yet to taste victory there, with two losses and two draws. Crew SC will look to change that this Saturday, as they look to extend the run of three-goal victories to open the season to three years in a row. 2013 saw a 3-0 win over Chivas USA (RIP), and last year saw Columbus come out victorious by the same scoreline at RFK Stadium over D.C. United.
Columbus Crew Soccer Club continue to try and shape the team in the image of its head coach. Head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter lead the team to the playoffs in his first year with the club, out performing all expectations. Those expectations are higher this year, with new faces like Kei Kamara, Hernan Grana, and Emanuel Pogatetz added to the core group of players from last year. With these additions, Crew SC will look to be serious challengers for the Eastern Conference crown. The club has seen a successful re-brand, jersey launch, and have finally secured a stadium naming rights deal with international insurance company MAPFRE. Can all this success off the field translate to on the field results?
The Black and Gold will have an almost full compliment of players to choose from in this match. The only exception is Justin Meram, who will be serving his ban from picking up a red card in last year's post-season encounter with the New England Revolution and the injured Romain Gall. There were reports Thursday of left fullback Waylon Francis being a doubt with an injury, but he is expected to play.
After a fairly impressive preseason, including many minutes with the starters, Kristinn Steindorsson seems most likely to take Meram's spot in the first 11 for opening night. The Icelandic international showed good movement and positioning in the preseason, and could even push Meram for his spot after his suspension with a good performance in this contest.
Their opponents are also starting a new era, naming Owen Coyle as the club's second ever head coach following Dominic Kinnear's departure at the end of last season. Coyle, a Scotsman with spells at Burnley, Bolton, and Wigan Athletic in England, crosses the pond looking to bring the Dynamo a third.
Houston's pre-season was largely successful, culminating in a 3-0 victory over MLS newcomers Orlando City SC in the Carolina Challenge Cup Final. Coyle will look to U.S. Men's National Team stalwarts Brad Davis and DaMarcus Beasley to lead the team, with big expectations also falling on the shoulders of winger Boniek Garcia and midfielder/forward Giles Barnes.
After missing the playoffs last season for just the second time in club history, Houston hopes to get its season off on the right foot. As of this article, the Dynamo have a clean bill of health, meaning Coyle will have free rein to choose his best 11.
They will be without new signing, striker Erick "Cubo" Torres, who comes over from the now defunct Chivas side and is currently on loan in Guadalajara. Without Torres, Will Bruin is expected to be the target man, hoping to build off of his 10 goals in 27 games last season, good for second best on the team behind Barnes, with 11 in 34.
With Davis and Garcia, it is expected that Houston's attack will be focused primarily on the wings, with the possibility of the outside midfielders cutting inside and allowing the fullbacks to overlap. This is very similar to how Crew SC look to play, so it will be interesting to see what side is able to dictate the game, forcing their opponents defenders to stay back.
Davis is widely considered to have one of, if not the best left foot in the league. This will be a stern opening test for Columbus' new right back Hernan Grana. Grana was very impressive in what limited preseason action he saw, but Davis is a much different beast to grapple with than "London United". Houston's winger has five goals and two assists in 26 career games against the Black and Gold, and Grana (along with some help from his teammates) will be looking to keep him off the score sheet.
Last year, Houston's defense was, in a word, uninspiring. To rectify what they consider the weak link in their club, the Dynamo signed 27-year old Raul Rodriguez from RCD Espanyol. A solid, capapble defender, he does tend to lack in the speed department. With Beasley on the left side of the defense, this could spell problems for Houston if the wingers, most likely Finlay and Steindorsson, are able to run in behind on to passes from Federico Higuain. Any holes opened could be exploited by Kamara, who probably won't be able to bully the center defense of Houston, but could get around them.
Once again, the whole match could turn on who is best able to exploit the other side's wingers and fullbacks.
It could very well be a tight matchup, with one mistake or moment of brilliance deciding it either way. We will see who comes out victorious on Saturday night, until then:
Stay Massive, my friends.