An 0-2-1 start to the 2016 season is, well, less than ideal for Columbus Crew SC. It doesn't get any easier, either.
Tonight the Black & Gold travel to FC Dallas to begin a tough stretch of schedule against a side many believe is the class of the Western Conference this season. So far, it has played like it. Minus a 4-0 blip at the hands of rival Houston, Dallas has looked exactly as we thought it would.
What does that mean for Columbus?
FC Dallas has been exactly what Crew SC has not — efficient.
Columbus is second in the league in chance creation per 90 minutes through the first month of the season, and yet has only two goals in three games to show for it. That should indicate that the scales will begin to level at some point, but they haven't yet.
Meanwhile, the Hoops run their signature attack that features explosiveness that doesn't rely on possession or quantity. Dallas simply takes care of business when it gets a chance.
FC Dallas is averaging just a slightly-above-average 13.5 shots per game (CCSC is at 16.7), but its 6.8 shots on target per game is tied atop the league. That percentage is second in MLS — this is not a team that wastes chances on the ball.
An exercise in opposites
Columbus wants to possess, push the ball down the wings and cross the ball into the box. As the numbers above show, it is about getting a large number of opportunities. Last year that resulted in a lot of goals. So far this season it has not. But the reasoning behind the style of attack is the same.
Dallas, meanwhile, won't need to have the ball. It has the tools to draw teams in and then get behind them with speed. The team likes the long ball and is relatively accurate with it, which can spring speedy wingers Fabian Castillo and Michael Barrios, and the respect the defense has to offer that speed helps create space in the middle for Mauro Diaz to create chances.
All of that means that the Black & Gold should be able to push up as it likes, and generally dominate the ball, as it likes. But it also means that Dallas will have the opportunities it wants as well.
The Magical Little Unicorn
I didn't dub him that (credit goes to MLSSoccer.com's Matt Doyle on that one), but Diaz is one of my favorite players to watch in all of Major League Soccer.
He is as big an X-factor as their is in the league as one of only a handful of true No. 10s, and one of, if not the best. If he can stay healthy all year (which he's never done before), you may as well write him in on the MVP ballot right now.
Diaz is fourth in the league in key passes and second in expected assists, and his touch percentage of 11.7 percent leads the team (and the attacking players by a large margin).
Everything runs through him, and it will be up to Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani to cut off his horn.
This is the perfect example of Dallas danger. A tackle to break up a play in its defensive third, a quick long ball out to an attacker that can cause a problem. In this case it's through the linchpin Diaz, who then shows one of the many tricks in his toolbox with a perfect long through-ball to the speed he has around and in front of him.
Tell me that doesn't give you nightmares.
The Urruti factor
Maximiliano Urruti never quite found consistent production (or starting minutes) with the Portland Timbers, but he's been an excellent fit for Dallas in the early season. His mobility is far superior to the departed Blas Perez, so while FC Dallas loses Perez's aerial ability and dirty, er, I mean, crafty play, his ability to run the channels has worked in sync with Diaz's heady play and is a nightmare to handle in tandem with the rest of the attack — movement from Urruti in the middle and Castillo and Barrios on the wings. And thus far he's proven to be opportunistic.
Urruti is seventh in the league in expected goals, and his 10% unassisted shot rate tells you exactly the role he's filling — he's good at finding the right spots on the field and taking advantage of the talent around him.
He also is quite good defensively for a forward, which I don't think is often recognized.
Speaking of defense...
Rarely on their heels
Despite the fact that Dallas doesn't often spend a majority of the time in possession of the ball, it is also rarely on its heels because it's well organized and comfortable getting the ball out of feet on the back line.
FC Dallas is third in MLS in tackles per game and limits opponents to 10.3 shots per game, which is second best in the league.
While Columbus is likely to better that number, the matchup provides a bit of a tipping point — if Crew SC can't find a way to be more efficient this week (and if "luck" doesn't slide the way of CCSC a little bit more than it has) then it's probably going to be another week spent searching for answers.
Part of the key will be finding different ways to attack. Where FC Dallas has struggled in the past is with emergency defending. That hasn't been a strength of the center-back pairing of Walker Zimmerman and Matt Hedges that it's favored this season. Add in the fact that right back Ryan Hollingshead likes to get into the attack, and it becomes clear that explosive attacking — not just constant attacking — will be critical in breaking a good defense down.
Find an extra gear
It sounds nebulous, but Columbus needs to find a way to ratchet up the intensity. Let's be honest, a point on the road against a team of this caliber, especially considering the Black & Gold's start, should most definitely be considered a positive result. But the level of focus and energy needs to be greater to have any hope of that.
A few Crew SC players played for their respective international sides during the FIFA break, but the team as a whole got an extra week to refocus. Dallas is coming off a 3-0 drubbing of what appears to be a very bad D.C. United side. It's a good opportunity for Columbus to come off some down time with a fresh energy and purpose.
The general consensus is that while the results have not been there, there have been significant periods of solid play from CCSC. It will take 90 minutes today, because FC Dallas punishes letdowns.
The preaching continues — there's no reason to panic regardless of how this game turns out. But having something — anything — to feel good about would go a long way toward carrying something uplifting into a tough stretch of games ahead.