Columbus Crew SC hits the road once again this weekend for a Saturday afternoon showdown in the Emerald City, where a struggling Sounders club with a 2-4-1 record will aim to beat the Black & Gold in Washington for the first time since 2011.
The last time Columbus played at CenturyLink Field ended agonizingly for Seattle — specifically, on a 94th minute bending desperation strike from winger Justin Meram to break a 1-1 tie — and Michael Parkhurst knows the team was fortunate to escape with a victory in 2014.
"Last [time], when we went out there [to Seattle], the first half was a disaster. I know we came away with the win but that first half, they had about six or seven counterattacks which should have ended up goals," Parkhurst said in the team's locker room Saturday after a 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo.
And as far as training priorities go this week in the leadup to the matchup with the Sounders, Parkhurst said "getting to know them" and "familiarizing ourselves with them" top the list for Columbus.
"We only see them once a year. So we don't know those players as well as we do the Eastern Conference folks," Parkhurst said. "But usually, [with] the Western Conference teams, we're able to control the game a little bit more. It's usually a little bit more open. You know, they aren't as familiar with pressing us so we're able to knock the ball [around] a little more."
Saturday's match against the West's Dynamo was no different, as Columbus hung on to the ball after an 18th minute straight red card to Tyler Deric shifted the onus of time management on to the home club's shoulders en route to three points.
"It was a different win, definitely. It was a weird one," Meram said afterward. "You know, when they went down a man, I think they stayed really compact and made it difficult for us at times. But we kept our heads in it and we didn't make any bonehead mistakes.
"We just killed the time with possession and, you know, they really didn't have an answer."
The 2015 contest between Crew SC and Seattle, however, deviated from that possessive norm. The Sounders enjoyed possession 56.8 percent of the time, but the Ohio club also more than doubled up its foe's shot count in its 3-2 win.
Parkhurst's claim of holding the ball generally more often against squads from the West, though, is absolutely accurate. Crew SC is averaging 58.4 percent possession per game so far in 2016, but the metric's mean against the three Western teams faced this year is a slightly inflated 62.7 percent.
There's another X-factor with which Columbus doesn't always do well: playing on artificial turf, as was the case in Crew SC's worst defeat of the season up in Montreal's Olympic Stadium on April 9.
"The turf can be fast and, you know, they've got some very good players up front," Parkhurst said. "We're going to have be very aware of the counterattack and make sure that we're clean on the ball, especially on the turf because it's a little difficult."
Meram echoed his captain's sentiments on heading to the Pacific Northwest for what could be a tricky contest.
"Got to love playing out there. It's going to be a difficult match," Meram said. "They're really talented and, you know, obviously it's turf so it's a different surface for us but we're going to go out there and play our game and hopefully go for three in a row."
That sort of confidence in Berhalter's system has the Iraqi national performing well so far this season. And while Ethan Finlay struggled to convert a relatively minimal number of touches into meaningful offensive chances versus Houston, Meram established a fluid rapport with Waylon Francis and Mohammed Saeid along the left flank throughout both the midfield and into Crew SC's attacking third.
Some of Meram's assertive runs in space on the left side of the pitch culminated in displays of willingness and confidence to outduel defenders while still managing to stay aware of seams when the angles or windows were too tight. He led Columbus in dribbles Saturday and tallied the second-fewest total passes of Crew SC starters by virtue of some of those possessive breakaways. What set Meram apart was that he was turning those seemingly selfish numbers into tangible attacks and is now tied for sixth in all of MLS in shots on goal.
The team as a whole continues to struggle with long ball technique and transitional discipline, being flagged offside a whopping nine times against the Dynamo.
"As far as the offsides, you know, some of them were the guys just being too eager, I think, the guy on the ball not recognizing it fast enough," Parkhurst said. " The ones that are a little more frustrating [are] when the wide guy's offside because he can see the line [more clearly]. But I thought it was good that guys wanted to get behind the line.
"If we can clean it up a little bit and just be a little bit sharper with both the ball and the run, it'll be challenging for other defenses in the future."
Facing a Sounders team that's likely to feature forwards Clint Dempsey and Nelson Valdez back in the 18 after precautionary scratches against Colorado for tightness, the Crew SC defense is now tasked with preparing for a talented attacking corps that also features homegrown player Jordan Morris.
Morris has scored twice in the last two games, and Columbus will have its hands full with whoever slots in after getting a bit of a break against Houston when Will Bruin had his 30-game start streak broken in favor of Giles Barnes.
"Bruin's a handful and he's tough to play against, so I didn't mind him not coming into the game and I told him so afterwards," Parkhurst admitted. "We had it drawn up a little bit differently. You know, their formation and their personnel was different than we expected."
So too could some offensive lineup surprises come in Washington Saturday, but Black & Gold fans can take temporary solace in the fact that the team has already had to adjust to at least one major shakeup so far this year.
Kickoff is slated for 4 p.m. Eastern time on ABC 6, TWCSC, and MLS Live.