Oh, MLS. We love you and your quirks. Except for when we don't. A jam-packed international break — which, of course, Major League Soccer plays right through — means there will be widespread absences across the league this weekend. But the show must go on.
The shakeup comes at a bad time for Columbus Crew SC, which is in a nice run of performances that sees the club unbeaten in its last four, including back-to-back victories.
This week's opponent is FC Dallas, which has its own absences, and is coming off a 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake that snapped a three-game losing streak.
It's strange to be in September and suddenly face this much unknown, but that's where Saturday's match stands. Here are a few key things to keep an eye on.
Forget what you know
Because we don't really know. Both teams are missing critical players, so we don't know how they will line up or exactly what that will mean for how they play or how well they play.
In an effort to save space, here is a breakdown of what Crew SC will be missing on Saturday, and a spitballing of potential shakeup ideas.
And here, the folks at Big D Soccer discuss their own absences.
Those are the full lists, here are the most glaring points of note — Columbus will be without its fullbacks (key in its system), without Wil Trapp (we've already seen how much his absence can be felt) and without talismanic striker Kei Kamara.
Dallas, meanwhile, is without the attacking triumvirate that makes it go — no Blas Perez, no Fabian Castillo and, quite possibly, no Mauro Diaz (and if he does play it would appear he'll be less than 100 percent).
FCD has worked out of a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 this year and the challenge this week will be — do they go with the former because they only have one true forward, David Texeira, available (Tesho Akindele is also gone) or, if Diaz — the best No. 10 option — is not healthy, do they go with a 4-4-2, playing with the stalwart defensive midfield pairing of homegrown products Kellyn Acosta and Victor Ulloa. They may be forced to go with the 4-2-3-1 because of the situation up top, in which case Rolando Escobar will likely fill in for Diaz. That's a less magical option, but don't overlook the fact he has averaged an excellent 2.6 key passes per 90 minutes in limited time thus far.
Acosta and Ulloa are the key pivots for Dallas, which loves to play counter-attacking soccer but is flexible thanks to Diaz's qualities. Against a team like Columbus, which plays a possession game, expect FCD to concede some possession and try to hit on the break.
That becomes more difficult without Castillo on the left wing, but Ryan Hollingshead can overlap and Michael Barrios might be the side's most dangerous attacker on Saturday. His .2 xG/90 and .31 xG+xA/90 are right there with more well-known attacking stars on the roster. He fits the mold of an attacking winger who will want the ball at his feet going at the defense.
Oh, those midfield turnovers
One of Columbus' issues this season has been midfield turnovers, which too often burn a team playing high up the field. This is the sort of thing FCD feasts on, and although Castillo's absence will be welcomed by Crew SC, to think those sorts of mistakes won't be punished is foolish. Ulloa and Acosta have done a very good job doing yeoman's work in the middle of the park and then quickly distributing the ball forward to spark things. If CCSC gives them chances to do that, it could be a long night for the Black & Gold.
Of the things we do know, one seems to be that Mohamed Saeid will be back in the starting lineup to replace Trapp. It's been a while since he has gotten the starting nod. It will be interesting to see how he's used his time in the interim. It was clear that over the long-term there were areas he was lacking in that Trapp excelled at, and he was sometimes exposed by his defensive positioning. Will he be more comfortable now that he's had time to learn the system even more as well as watch Trapp do his work? Don't underestimate the value of watching from the sideline. He can't leave too much space behind him for FC Dallas to play into on the counter or for Escobar/Diaz to operate in when transitioning into possession.
How will Jack Mac fit?
Jack McInerney has multiple roles he can play in Columbus — a substitute to change things up, a partner to play alongside Kamara and create space. The question is: how does he operate for 90 minutes as a lone striker in this system?
Kamara has scored goals galore for Crew SC, but he's also been good in hold up play. McInerney is not that kind of striker. He's not going to bring everyone else into the attack, and I'm very curious what that means in this game. All those crosses the Black & Gold like to send in won't have a traditional aerial target. They may need to keep the ball on the ground more, which means that Federico Higuain will HAVE to have a good game, and Ethan Finlay will need to cut inside and attack the defense more (something we know he can do, but may need to do more often this week). Someone will need to help create space for McInerney to run into.