A busy transfer deadline week has offered Columbus Crew SC fans a pleasant distraction from last weekend's horror show on the field. Now there is buzz about a bolstered defense, an injection of Jack McInerney and, obviously, a solving of all the club's woes, right?
For better or for worse, it's now time to turn our attention back to the field and let the results do the talking.
On Saturday, Crew SC travels to take on the Colorado Rapids for the first time this season to open a five-week stretch of yet-to-be-seen-in-2015 opponents. The Rapids are coming off disappointment of their own, blowing a lead to fall to the L.A. Galaxy 3-1 last week.
Colorado is currently last in the Western Conference, but have scalps from FC Dallas, Vancouver Whitecaps and Seattle Sounders, so it is obviously capable of beating anyone. It was on a three-game winning streak until last week's loss.
Here are some things to keep in mind ahead of this weekend's game.
Shutting the door only works for so long
Colorado has had one of the better defenses in MLS this season. Fans of the Black & Gold can't begrudge anyone some pride in that. The problem is that has been about the extent of things for the Rapids this season.
The back four has been very steady, and goalkeeper Clint Irwin has been a little under-appreciated around the league — he's been pretty good.
Colorado has been one of the most reactive teams in MLS. Sometimes that's good (Dallas, Vancouver, Sporting KC) and sometimes that's bad (Rapids, Real Salt Lake, San Jose). The key is what teams do with their reactive style of play, and the answer for Colorado has been, mostly, not a whole lot. While second in the league in goals against, the Rapids are last in goals for (and their expected goals for is basically the same).
The biggest problem is that the team has not linked well (its 74.2% passing is 18th in MLS) and it's lacked a spark in the attack. That's just forced the defense to be absolutely perfect, and that hasn't been enough.
What's missing for the Rapids?
Why is the offense so dry? There are many reasons, really. Playing in a 4-3-3, there's been no linkup between the defensive third and the attackers. The midfield is basically defensive-minded guys, Dillon Powers and Marcelo Sarvas, who is a hard-working box-to-box guy with some ability, but not the type of player that unlocks defenses.
Young midfielder Powers leads the team with 6.56 xG+xGA. That's a decent indicator of chance creation. His 35 key passes is 17th in the entire league. A lot of teams would like to have that type of player, but the problem is this — he's as good as it has been for Colorado. A quick scan of the better teams in MLS shows that nearly every one — and some of the not so great teams, as well — has at least one player with an xG+xGA of 7 or better. Some have multiple guys that fit that bill (Columbus has three). Those are the types of players that can create things on their own as well as draw enough attention from defenses to create space for others. Powers is just below that tier of player.
So while the Rapids have Powers and a handful of other guys who are OK in that category (Gabriel Torres, Juan Ramirez), they're all players who would be accessories on another team, not the main attraction. That's made it hard for the offense to get into gear, and the team has the fewest goals from open play in MLS. The club is also the worst in the league with just 29.3 percent of its shots (which are mid-pack) going on target and sends a larger percentage of its shots (50 percent) from outside the box than any other side in the league. There's just the lack of a polished attacker to open up high-quality chances.
Struggling offense, meet struggling defense
The reality of things is that regardless of how much Colorado has struggled to create goals, a meeting with Crew SC's bumbling and stumbling back line could be just the boost the Rapids need. So there are still concerns for the Black & Gold.
Designated player Kevin Doyle was brought in midseason to try to provide a goal-scoring boost for Colorado. He's had his moments, but there hasn't been much help around him so he's struggled to really get in gear. He'll play as a central striker who relies on trying to find space to slip in to.
Injuries have seen Vicente Sanchez and Charle Eloundou start each of the last two games on the right and left wings, respectively. Elondou is raw but speedy and will run at players. Sanchez lives on the right touchline. Both try to get deep and look for holes or generate corner kicks, because Colorado is a solid set piece team. Depending on his health, Luis Solignac could be on the left wing.
The Rapids have traditionally been pretty direct in their attack, with longer passes (shining a light on the disconnect from defensive midfield to attacking trio).
What are the worries for the Black & Gold?
Playing defense seems like a worry these days for Columbus, and although Colorado's attack in the final third has been weak, it actually keeps the ball in the opposition half at a high rate (30 percent, second in MLS). The forward line will sometimes press, and that hasn't always turned out well for Crew SC, so there can be opportunities for Colorado to jump on.
Gregg Berhalter talked about changes, but it's unlikely we'll see many of the new signings on the field this week. More likely it means we'll see a Jimenez-Parkhurst-Pogatetz-Klute back line, with the last a given at left back due to Waylon Francis' yellow card accumulation suspension. That unit has to avoid the miscommunications that have plagued it, because Doyle is good enough to find opportunities should the wingers stretch the defense out of shape. It also has to be smart in ball clearance and tackling — offer up too many corner kicks or set pieces from fouls and you provide the Rapids' attack a loophole through its struggles.
The other keys will be closing out to prevent quality long shots and denying Dillon Powers the ball and space. Without him, the Rapids will find offensive creation even harder. The defense can't stay too deep; playing higher up forces Colorado to create in smaller spaces, and that's not its strength.
Break it down, attack wide
The biggest concern might be whether Colorado can break down a good defensive team who will get numbers behind the ball. The Colorado fullbacks are more stay-at-home types, and aren't likely to get caught upfield. That means that they should be well-positioned most of the time to handle Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay out wide. Add in that all of the midfielders outside of Powers — whether it's Sarvas, Sam Cronin or Lucas Pittinari — are strong in the defensive half of the field, and that's why the Rapids have been good at keeping the ball out of the back of the net.
The Black & Gold have to maintain good attacking width. If Colorado is allowed to stay compact, Columbus will be left with low-quality attempts all night. Stretch the field, create that space and test the fullbacks. Speed is not the strength of the Rapids defense, so Finlay can win that battle. James Riley has been one of the first-choice fullbacks, but he was responsible for all three of the Galaxy's goals last week. Crew SC must either force him to be better or victimize him.