It's the first match of the season between Columbus Crew SC and the New England Revolution. Saturday's contest marks the first time since the 2014 MLS Cup Playoffs that the two sides have met. The Revolution won that two-leg series 7-3 on aggregate, knocking Columbus out of the post season.
While the two clubs prepared to add another chapter to the rivalry, I chatted with Steve Stoehr "Regiment Commander" of SB Nation's The Bent Musket to see things from the New England perspective.
Questions for The Bent Musket
Massive Report: It was a bit of a rough start to begin the season for the Revolution with no wins in the first three games. The team is now undefeated in three win two wins. Has there been a change in the team or did the results finally fall into place?
The Bent Musket: I think it's a little bit of both. It's important to look at both losses and realize that the Revs created chances, especially against New York. They were always going to lose that match to Seattle, the Sounders were clearly better on the day, but with a favorable bounce or a gentle breeze, the match against NYCFC could easily have been 2-2 or even a 3-2 to New England. So, on that front, it's a little bit of the team finally getting its just desserts.
On the other hand, you can't rule out the personnel changes. Lee Nguyen is fully healthy, sure, but the decision to put Charlie Davies back up top and move Juan Agudelo wide has so far looked like a masterstroke from Jay Heaps. Agudelo switches at will with Kelyn Rowe on the other side and Davies leading the line, wreaking havoc and utilizing his dribbling and distribution ability while facing goal and terrorizing defenses. Rowe has responded well to the change with two goals and an assist in his last two matches, and Davies just continues to do the unheralded work of the lone forward, stretching the defense and chasing down balls, which helped him earn the penalty against Colorado last week.
It's too early to say that the Revs have found their formula - traditionally, Heaps-coached teams don't find that "formula" until late August, really - but they have certainly found a way to be really dangerous.
MR: Jermaine Jones is yet to play for New England this year after a sports hernia surgery in the preseason. It sounds like he could return to action this weekend thought. What are the chances he takes the field for the Revs and what impact would that make to the lineup, chemistry, etc?
TBM: I think there's a very, very good chance that he gets a substitute appearance, maybe for 10-15 minutes, though I would be surprised to see him go more than 20 minutes. Jermaine Jones is a competitor, and he wants to play, but he's getting a little older and the Revs are not in so bad a spot as to need to rush him back. They'll be cautious and take their time with him, as well they should.
The change that makes is that it bumps somebody out of midfield. Right now it would probably be Dorman, but when Kobayashi is healthy it becomes a different question. Does Daigo bump Caldwell? Both have played very well and both play a key role in both facilitating possession and maintaining pressure further up the pitch. I think there are a lot of happily-difficult decisions for Heaps to make in midfield and attack when this team is fully-healthy, and it will be interesting to see how it goes. One thing is certain - in 2014, with Jones on the field, Lee Nguyen became a force of nature. We're all eager to see if that will happen again when Jones is back.
MR: All of the games between these sides last season were decided in the midfield. Columbus hasn't gotten consistent midfield play this season due to an inability to play the same five players. New England's midfield seems to be a strength yet again. From a Revs' perspective, what can the team's midfield group do to win this game?
TBM: Two things, really: stand up to the punishment, and maintain the press. First, they have to endure Columbus. Tony Tchani may have come into his own recently as a player and he's certainly a guy with talent who does a job, but he's also a physical player, and in past meetings with the Revs he's gotten brutally so. With Dorman or Jones in the XI, the Revs are a little better-equipped to handle it, but Scott Caldwell just doesn't have the size to match up, even if he has the toughness. Tchani has done everything short of criminal assault in past matches to make sure that the Revs don't break out quickly when they regain possession, and it will be important for New England to be able to avoid it or play through it when it happens.
Second, they can't let go of the high press. The Revs played well in possession for about 65 minutes against Colorado last week, until the altitude finally got them. That was by design, because it's way too hard to maintain a high intensity and work rate at that kind of elevation, so it required the Revs to play a different game to what they usually play. Against Columbus, think again. Even if Wil Trapp is out, Columbus is just flat-out better when they keep the ball. New England can't let Crew SC's midfield get into a rhythm and start dictating play at their own pace, because Federico Higuain will pick out Kamara or Finlay and the Revs will lose. When Columbus gets on the ball, the Revs need to play very aggressively to take it back and do something with it, preferably in the attacking third.
As a bonus, the Revs need to not give away free kicks near the box. Higuain will score. He always does. This needs to stop.
MR: It's early days, but the Revolution have given up some of the most goals in the league (six). Is this something that may be an ongoing problem throughout the season, or just a factor of the slow start to the year?
TBM: I think it's mostly a factor of the slow start, and a small sample size. The Revs have played five matches. In one, they gave up three. In another, two. In another, one. In two, they pitched shutouts. I don't think you're looking at a team that's going to give up record amounts of goals.
Are you looking at a team that's in the top-third or top-25% of the league in defense? That remains to be seen. Bobby Shuttleworth is playing fantastically in goal, but Andrew Farrell and Jose Goncalves are still figuring it out as a defensive partnership. They look better than they did against Seattle (shudder-inducing) but even against Colorado, there were one or two moments where Shuttleworth had to bail them out because someone was way out of position and the whole defense got dragged away (see the Dillon Powers save). Better-finishing teams will not let them get away with it.
Goncalves is clearly a top defender in the league, but Farrell has been shaky. It's starting to become really apparent just how much he relied on the touchline defensively as a right back. Even when one-on-one defending, which I used to think was his greatest strength, he has looked indecisive or predictable, and he's been falling down a lot. It's troubling, because the physical tools are there and the potential probably still is, but he needs to shape up quickly.
Questions for Massive Report
The Bent Musket: Seems like it's been a slow, up-and-down start for Crew SC in 2015. What do you think has contributed to that? The competition has been stiff, but do you think the performance against some of the league's better teams is encouraging or worrying for Crew SC's playoff hopes?
Massive Report: I think there are a few reasons things have been up and down. First has been the schedule. The Black and Gold played the first two weeks of the season - dominating both games, winning one - before a week off. Crew SC's play against the New York Red Bulls was disappointing and then they had 10 days before their next game. They come into this contest having played on Wednesday, a mediocre performance. It's not something the team is complaining about, but the inconsistent games haven't helped the team build cohesion.
Another issue has been the changes forced on head coach Gregg Berhalter. Through four games this season, he is yet to roll out the same starting XI. There have been suspensions, injuries, and national team call-ups. Obviously this is part of the MLS season, but it's strange to see it impact a team so much early in the year.
I would say the performances have been eye opening. Those in Columbus have seen the team play really well and like they expected out of them heading into the season. The performance against New York was a head scratcher and the last game against the Vancouver Whitecaps, where the team played very defensive, didn't help to itch that scratch.
TBM: The most recent injury report shows Wil Trapp as questionable. He's so key to the Crew SC's midfield - do you think he plays? If not, how do the Crew cope? Give us a little breakdown of the difference between Crew SC with Trapp and without, if you can.
MR: Trapp's status has been changed to doubtful, as he is evidently dealing with concussion-like symptoms, which is why he was pulled from the Vancouver game at halftime. The team has sent him to an expert in Columbus and now has him seeing the top specialist for concussions while in Boston, so I doubt he plays in this one.
Without him, the team doesn't have the same natural flow to the game. Trapp not only does a lot of the dirty work, getting back defensively to provide cover when the outside backs get forward, but also really connects things in the middle of the park. Trapp and Tony Tchani developed a nice partnership last year, but have only played one and half games together this season.
As for what they do without Trapp, new addition Mohammed Saeid steps in. Saeid is built similar to Trapp, but isn't as comfortable in the role. This isn't to say Saeid hasn't played well, because he has, but Trapp played a similar role in college and therefore has a familiarity with the expectations.
TBM: People are starting to call this a serious rivalry. The animosity certainly seems to be there on the field - I don't think anybody on either team particularly likes one another, at least for that 90 minutes. Do Crew SC fans see it that way, too, or do you think it's just a product of a lot of games with high stakes in a short period of time?
MR: I would say it's becoming a rivalry from both sides. The regular season games last year were certainly contentious and close and the contentious part carried over to the playoffs. Crew SC fans certainly haven't forgotten that New England knocked them out and many think of the Revs as the only team that could have kept them from playing in MLS Cup.
I would say that most fans in Columbus are excited for these games, hoping Crew SC can get a little bit of revenge for last year.
TBM: Give us an under-the-radar player Revs fans should watch out for in this match.
MR: If Saeid starts over Trapp, he is one, but another player would be Hernan Grana. The former Boca Juniors right back left Argentina after struggling to fit in with the side's style. He's come to Columbus and had a solid start to his MLS career, getting forward in Berhalter's system as one of the best crossers statistically in the league heading into this week.
Grana was held out of the midweek game, so he should be fresh and ready to go against New England. Fans will see him getting down the outside, but he also has a knack of coming centrally and getting in dangerous spots. He scored two goals in preseason, one from inside the six-yard box - not on a set piece.
At least, he's fun to watch bombing forward in a similar mold to former Crew SC right back Frankie Hejduk.