A lot of good things came from a mid-week win over the New England Revolution, and now Columbus Crew SC has an opportunity to turn a double-game week into a huge momentum boost. Right now Real Salt Lake looks like a team that may be ripe for the picking.
RSL has struggled to score goals this year, and a current rash of personnel absences leaves the club shorthanded against the Black & Gold on Saturday. In a lot of ways, this looks like a good matchup for Columbus. But this is MLS, and every time you think you know how something will play out, the opposite happens.
Here's how things may look this weekend and what that means for Crew SC.
WHO IS REAL SALT LAKE?
This is not the same club that has been one of MLS' model franchises over the last seven years or so. The full effect of the departure of Jason Kreis, continued changes on the roster and a carousel of injuries have taken their toll on RSL. Rather than the rock solid identity that has so long been a part of Real Salt Lake, this year has seen head coach Jeff Cassar experimenting with three or four different formations while looking for answers.
That search will continue against Columbus as RSL will have to find away to piece together a lineup that is missing five regular starters. There is no Chris Schuler (injury), Jamison Olave (injury) or Demar Phillips (red card), Javier Morales (red card) and Alvaro Saborio (international callup). All would be on the field in a first-choice starting lineup.
The biggest blow is Morales. He may be losing just a step with age, but he's still inarguably the most important attacking player on the roster, with 3.1 key passes per game and 42.6 passes per game. He's second on the team with a .135 touch percentage, which is leaps and bounds ahead of other attacking players. His closest like-for-like replacement is Luis Gil, but the American youngster has not developed in the way most hoped. His impact on the game has not yet come close to matching Morales'.
Phillips will leave the other hole, with Abdoulie Mansally likely stepping in. He's a veteran, but Phillips provides more attacking motor and actually leads the team in touches.
The other players have been out for a stretch of time already. Elias Vasquez has been a regular at center back, though he has not played in either of the last two games. His partner is Aaron Maund. Youngster Justen Glad has replaced Vasquez the last two matches.
Tony Beltran is a given at right fullback.
Cassar has gone with a 4-2-3-1 the last two games, though that shares a lot in common with the 4-3-3 that has most often been put on the field this season. Kyle Beckerman will surely start ahead of his departure for the Gold Cup, and with no Morales he will be the most important player on the field for Real Salt Lake. Luke Mullholland has most often been the box-to-box partner, with Gil playing Morales attacking role. U20 international Jordan Allen may have a chance to start as well. John Stertzer has mirrored Beckerman's defensive role, so it seems unlikely that the two would be paired together this week.
In the attack, Jao Plata was supposed to solve many of RSL's offensive issues when he returned from a lengthy injury, but it hasn't worked that way yet. Sebastian Jaime has been an underwhelming DP on the opposite wing, with Olmes Garcia also an option.
Devon Sandoval will be the No. 9 up top, replacing Saborio. Although he doesn't stand out in any one area, he is behind only Saborio and Morales in expected goals + expected assists. He's the type of striker that puts himself in spots to receive the ball in the box and will hold up and bring his teammates into the attack.
HOW WILL REAL SALT LAKE PLAY?
Thus far, RSL has not been much of an attacking threat. The club is last in MLS in shots per game (9.8) and leads the league in percentage of play in its own end. Real is also in the bottom third in danger zone shots (32.9 percent) and even a low .87 goals for per game is still ahead of a league-worst .84 xGF. They've been shut out eight times this season.
While middle of the pack in possession numbers, RSL has not been overly effective with the ball when they have possession, completing just 75.2 percent of their passes (15th in MLS). They will press at times, but have found themselves conceding possession to teams that like to possess — witness Wednesday's game against New York Red Bulls, when they were significantly out-possessed and embarrassingly out-shot, 24-4.
When Real Salt Lake does have the ball, it plays it out of the back, with the center backs picking up a lot of touches and funneling possession to the fullbacks, who are all among the team's leaders in touch percentage, though Mansally lags behind Phillips in that department.
Beckerman is the pivot, and will play a huge role on Saturday with the absence of Morales. Expect Beckerman to do a little more trying to pick out players going forward.
Even when Morales is on the field, the team still keeps its buildup to either side of the field, though it looks for the wings cutting back toward the middle or for Sandoval, who will drop into the midfield to hold up play but will generally provide a threat on goal centrally.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR CREW SC?
RSL has won just once in its last five games, and that came on a 93rd-minute deflection against Kansas City. This is not an attack that worries defenses right now, and without Morales it becomes even shakier. That said, Columbus' biggest problem is that it gets gashed on mistakes too often, and those errors can come against anyone.
Sandoval is not clinical but he is often in good spots, and Plata can fly and has proven himself a capable goal scorer.
The key may be to try to make Beckerman one-dimensional. If the Black & Gold can cut off his passing lanes from deep, it will go a long way to slowing a team that will have less creativity in front of him. Gil will be a concern, but he seems to be more comfortable attacking with the ball at his feet than setting up his teammates in the way Morales does.
Columbus will also have to avoid the midfield turnovers that have sliced them up at times, because if the fullbacks get caught up there is enough speed on the wings to take advantage of space... though it is worth noting that RSL has yet to score a goal on the counter attack this season.
They have had success on set pieces, but Morales has a lot to do with that.
If Justin Meram can put in a good effort going forward, that will occupy Beltran with greater defensive responsibilities and should keep the fullbacks' contributions to the attack limited. For a team that has struggled to create attacking chances and is without its best playmaker, something as small as that can go a long way toward giving Columbus the upper hand.
Good news for Crew SC is that Real has the fourth-worst danger zone percentage (42.5) in the MLS, has allowed the fourth-most shots per game (13.9) and has the worst danger zone ratio (for/against) in the league. It also has been weak on aerials. All of that seems to play into the hands of Gregg Berhalter's squad, which likes to possess, has generally been good at creating opportunities and loves a good cross into the box for the head of Kei Kamara (who has scored twice as many goals as RSL's entire forward group combined).
What does that all mean? It means that the Black & Gold have all the tools to win two games in one week, but, as usual, will have to avoid the killer mistakes that have haunted them. This is the type of game that can tell us a lot about where this team is after a positive mid-week result.