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D.C. poses a tough matchup for Crew SC this week

A May loss to D.C. United was indicative of the way Crew SC would continue to struggle against deep-lying, well-organized defenses. Now that the teams clash again four months later, can the Black & Gold crack a tough egg?

Columbus and D.C. last met in May, with United pipping a 2-0 win. The two meet again on Saturday in Washington, D.C.
Columbus and D.C. last met in May, with United pipping a 2-0 win. The two meet again on Saturday in Washington, D.C.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Back in May, Columbus Crew SC went on the road to D.C. United and lost a highly frustrating contest, as recapped by our own Pat Murphy.

We won't spend much more time rehashing that result, but the reality is that if you want to figure out how United is going to try to play Columbus on Saturday at RFK Stadium — just go watch the first meeting.

The result, however, is something that the Black & Gold will want to reverse. The good news is that D.C. is not in the same form as it was in the first meeting — back then it was atop the Eastern Conference, now it has not won in four MLS contests and has gone from a potential conference winner to fighting to avoid going on the road for a playoff play-in game. Still, United is a team that CCSC does not match up particularly well against.

A look at Crew SC's record against counter-attacking teams is not particularly pretty, with losses to D.C., Montreal Impact and, more recently, FC Dallas — in one of the worst performances of the season — all examples.

Here are a few things that will determine whether Columbus can overcome that and find a way to win.

Be patient, change it up

Columbus head coach Gregg Berhalter said it in practice this week, preaching patience and changing tempo in the attack as keys to breaking down D.C.'s defense. That's exactly what it's going to  take, but the question is whether Crew SC can put it into practice.

United's defense is as organized as any you'll find in MLS. That's what frustrated Columbus so much last time, as DCU survived wave after wave of attack without conceding. The only way to find cracks is to get them moving. That's done with spacing, switching flanks and changing tempos. The Black & Gold are never going to be a counter attacking team, but if they hold possession and allow D.C. to get set up defensively, it's going to be a tough egg to crack. When possession is lost, Columbus has to attack quickly (that's something that New York Red Bulls did tremendously well in a 3-0 win a couple of weeks ago).

At the same time, CCSC has to be patient, especially when building out of the back and through midfield. The team has been burned by turnovers before, and United will feast on midfield turnovers with Fabian Espindola and Chris Rolfe both capable of transitioning quickly and dangerously.

Set pieces

Look back to May and both goals in a 2-0 loss came off set pieces. The fact that one of those set pieces belonged to Crew SC exhibits how important these dead ball situations will be on both sides. D.C. United is a good set-piece team, with Chris Pontius, Bobby Boswell and now Alvaro Saborio all legitimate targets, and Rolfe or Espindola both capable of striking a good ball.

On the flip side, because DCU likes to counter, Columbus has to be perpared not to get caught up on set pieces deep in the attacking third. That's exactly what happened on the game-changing goal last time, when a half-hearted Justin Meram 50/50 attempt at the top of the attacking 18-yard box after a set piece gave United all sorts of room to break down the field and score. Don't get lazy and/or ball watch on attacking set pieces, or D.C. will take advantage.

Don't lose sight of the playmakers

The D.C. United attack isn't going to make anyone lose any sleep, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have any capable players. Although the addition of Saborio hasn't necessarily paid off with more goals, he has to be accounted for inside the box, and that means attention is drawn away from the two most dangerous attackers on the ball — Rolfe and Espindola. The latter got behind the defense on a set piece to salvage a draw on the road at the Colorado Rapids last week.

The first goal

The first goal is always important, but against a team like D.C. United, its value is magnified exponentionally. What does DCU want to do? It wants to play deep, compact defense, weather the storm and strike on the counter. What allows them to do that all night? If D.C. scores the first goal.

On the flip side, if Crew SC finds the back of the net first, all of a sudden United has to chase the ball a little bit, making itself more vulnerable to being picked apart by a Black & Gold attack that has generally struggled against bunkering teams.