Josh Mlot is a new addition to Massive Report. Josh is a sportswriter who currently resides in Mississippi. Josh has been a Crew SC fan since his days at Miami University. He will be focusing on news and analysis. Please welcome him to our staff.
When you think of D.C. United (4-1-2, 14 points), you think of a veteran team with a strong defense. That's accurate. But the team's attacking corps received a boost last week with the return of talisman Fabian Espindola from suspension, and with another week for him to settle back in — plus the hot form of Chris Rolfe — Columbus Crew SC (3-2-2, 11 points) cannot take the United attack lightly.
Here's a breakdown of what Columbus might see on Saturday night and what the keys will be to stop it.
D.C. United has been synonymous with the 4-4-2 under head coach Ben Olsen, and there's little doubt it will be the same against Columbus.
For much of the season, this meant Chris Pontius up top with former Crew SC striker Jairo Arrieta, while Rolfe came from a wide left position in the midfield. That changed last week, and for a good reason — the return of Espindola up top. Arrieta has now been pushed to the bench, while Rolfe played beside Espindola and Pontius came out of the left of midfield.
Perry Kitchen is a fixture in the center of the field. The other two midfield spots have been evolving. Nick DeLeon has played most of the season on the right side of the midfield, but Olsen experimented with Michael Farfan (who started centrally last week in Vancouver) in that position as well, with Davy Arnaud as a box-to-box central mid.
How will this all come together against Columbus? Farfan has started three games and gotten increasingly more minutes. However, his bigger role has also come against two teams — the Houston Dynamo and the Vancouver Whitecaps — that cede the majority of possession. Against a team like the Black and Gold, who typically wins the possession battle, Olsen may choose to go with a midfield that includes Arnaud and DeLeon, who are better defensively and could help D.C. absorb pressure.
Then again, Farfan also started against New York Red Bulls at RFK Stadium three weeks ago, so it may just be that he has assimilated himself in to the team at Arnaud's expense and offers a more creative piece with the team looking for three points at home.
HOW THE ATTACK ATTACKS
It's a 4-4-2 on paper, but the intent on the field is a little different with the ball, often looking more like a 4-3-1-2 or a 4-3-3. Part of that is the versatility of the attacking pieces D.C. possess.
Thus far, United are smack dab in the middle of MLS in terms of possession, right at 50 percent.
I would expect that D.C. will attempt to set up much as they did against Vancouver, which is a team that formationally is not unlike Columbus (in a 4-2-3-1). The return of Espindola against the Whitecaps also likely got them a step closer to what they want to look like.
United looks to build on the right side and in the middle while pushing farther up the field on the left to create outlets and opportunities to attack into the box. Quite often DeLeon drops back into the defensive half of the field to start the push forward. The left midfielder — Pontius in last week's case — stays higher on the field and ultimately acts as an attacking wing, creating a slightly lopsided attack — the majority of D.C.'s buildup comes from the middle-right, but the majority of its shot attempts come from the middle-left. Pontius fits this role well, as he is experienced in the striker role and can crash the far post and get his head on crosses if necessary.
Rolfe, meanwhile, tends to operate behind the No. 9 — now Espindola. Expect to see him drop into the midfield as well as float into the space on the left to get the ball at his feet. He's been the catalyst in recent weeks and has a goal in each of the last two games — both from just above the 18-yard box. Don't forget that this is a guy who was once in the U.S. national team picture.
Espindola is now the wild card, and his numbers in MLS speak for themselves. He'll stay high on the field, and without the ball he'll work and press the Crew SC backline. He led his team in aerials last week; when pressured, United often looked to get the ball to him as he flared back into the right channel and either headed the ball back down to the midfield or attempted to flick on to a running Rolfe in the middle.
The striker is at his most dangerous when he's got the ball at his feet, and he's a quality finisher. He's very adept at drawing fouls, witnessed by his ability last week to draw two yellow cards from Matias Laba. Down to 10 men, the Whitecaps were on their heels the rest of the game.
SO WHAT ARE CREW SC TO DO?
There is some danger in a D.C. United attack that is finally getting everyone on the field (though Luis Silva is still not healthy enough to get more than a handful of minutes off the bench thus far). However, this is also a team that has scored more than one goal only two times this season, and only notched that total last week against a 10-man Vancouver.
Possession will be critical for Columbus, not for possession's sake but to allow Hernan Grana and Waylon Francis to do what they do best — push forward. This is especially important for Grana, who will likely be battling with Pontius. If the Argentinian can stay high, it will force Pontius to hold a deeper midfield position than he wants to and help keep him out of the attack, cutting off D.C.'s left-side outlet.
Mohammed Saeid will also play a big role in the defensive midfield. The best defense against Espindola will be to pressure the ball in the midfield and not allow Arnaud, Farfan or Rolfe to get the ball to the striker in dangerous positions, where he can either run onto a through ball or get the ball at his feet and draw the defense (and fouls) and create space for Rolfe and Pontius.
Good news for the Black and Gold is that its center backs are far superior to the pair that D.C. scored two goals on last week. Michael Parkhurst's awareness and strong positioning will be key, because Espindola is constantly working and Rolfe's freedom to roam means he can pop up in different places.
Both Saeid and the center back pairing will need to make sure someone is always closing out on Rolfe, because he has shown he will let it fly, and often does so with a quality attempt on goal. The communication between those three players on defense will likely be the difference between Rolfe finding space or not.
That last bit should also help Columbus avoid fouls, something that is a must against United (which means someone better have a good chat with Tony Tchani before the game). Espindola's return pays certain obvious dividends, but also offers another sneaky boost, as his ability to draw fouls gives United quality opportunities on set pieces — one of its strengths. Rolfe can hit a great dead ball and D.C. has two dangerous threats in the air in Pontius and Bobby Boswell, so avoiding fouls near the box could be a difference maker.
Easy as pie, right?