It's been over a month since the only Columbus Crew SC win of the year and the Black and Gold will be looking to get all three points with a win against expansion side Orlando City SC. The long coast-to-coast road trip is now a memory and Columbus needs to start getting wins to climb back up the Eastern Conference standings.
This is the first time that Columbus faces Orlando since they joined MLS from USL PRO this season. The Lions have made quite a splash in MLS, first with their big signing of former Ballon d'Or winner Kaka in June of last year and now with two wins and an early season spot in third place in the Eastern Conference with eight points and a 2-2-2 record.
Kaka is certainly a big deal and he's being marketed as an attraction by the team for single game tickets and mentioned in news stories about the game, but this is actually the third time that Crew SC will face off against a Ballon d'Or winner. A well past his prime Lothar Matthäus came to Columbus in 2000. Hristo Stoichkov made an impact for the Chicago Fire over three seasons and D.C. United for another in the early 2000's. Kaka has hit the ground running and may be the most influential offensive player in MLS so far in 2015. He has star power, but he's also delivering results and fantastic service during his young MLS career.
Columbus is stuck at 1-2-2 and in sixth place in the Eastern Conference. There are still plenty of games to play, but the two off weeks and brutal road trip are behind them, and so are any excuses about uneven performances. Crew SC has an expansion team coming to MAPFRE Stadium. These are the games that championship caliber teams win, led by star players such as Federico Higuain. These are nights where three points are the expectation.
Wil Trapp is the key name on the injury list. His calf injury is fully healed, but he only just returned from seeing a concussion specialist in Rhode Island. Trapp has played in three games this year, but missed last week's game against the New England Revolution.
While Trapp works his way to full speed, the other key absence might finally be back. Waylon Francis has been a full go in practice and appears in game shape. Chris Klute has been effective in relief the last couple weeks, but Francis is much better adapted to the Crew SC system and is more of a threat in attack while providing solid defense. He's the starter if fit.
Rookie Sergio Campbell is listed as out, but he has yet to make a game day 18-man roster.
Orlando has several long term injuries, but only the only key contributor on the list is Lewis Neal. Neal has been out with an neck injury since late March and coach Adrian Heath has been cautious with bringing Neal back into the rotation.
You could start with the midfields, but they keys likely move to the wings. Brek Shea is available for the game after playing 45 minutes with the U.S. National Team on Wednesday. This season, Shea has been reborn as an attacking left wingback and often pushes far up the field much like Francis does. Opposite Shea, Ethan Finlay has the pace to exploit empty space. Where those two end up likely will go a long way to deciding who holds the advantage.
If Shea can assist in overloading the left side and forcing Finlay to track back and help Grana in containing Kaka and Shea, Orlando stymies a big part of the Crew SC offense. If Finlay is able to break into space and force Orlando to compensate by pulling Shea back or shift one of their midfield trio wide, that will cause ripple effects in the Orlando City offense and give Federico Higuain more room to work.
A similar dynamic exists on the left side. Justin Meram often pulls in centrally and gives Francis room to push forward. That helps provide Columbus with a numerical advantage in central midfield. If Orlando compensates to close down the left side, that then pulls the Lions out of their preferred shape. More than most defenses, theirs relies on reacting since they don't have dedicated banks of defenders.
This could have a cascading effect. If Higuita has to move left to help Shea, then Orlando doesn't have help in midfield or shielding in front of the central defenders. Meram and Higuain then have room to operate.
Crew SC is vulnerable to the reverse of this scenario. If Finlay isn't in position to break forward or Meram is stuck wider than normal, the team's balance is thrown off and then it's easier to collapse on Higuain. Those relative positions of the wingbacks against the wingers will be instructive on which team is imposing their game plan and will on the game.
Stay tuned to Massive Report for info on how to watch and projected lineups.