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Which disappointing team will be least disappointing when Crew SC and Seattle Sounders meet?

Fans in Columbus and Seattle both have had tough pills to swallow early in the year. Here are some things to watch for as Crew SC looks for its third win in a row and first on the road.

Federico Higuain and Columbus will have to deal with loud fans and turf on the road at Seattle on Saturday.
Federico Higuain and Columbus will have to deal with loud fans and turf on the road at Seattle on Saturday.
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Two struggling, underachieving teams meet on Saturday as Columbus Crew SC travels to take on the Seattle Sounders. (Yes, Columbus has won two in a row, but it wasn't pretty)

The Black & Gold have won three of the last four against the team in rave green and have more stability than Seattle right now, but both sit out of the playoff picture, both have only two wins and both have scored seven goals.

It would appear to be an opportunity for Columbus to continue its winning streak, but a game in Seattle is never easy, and, despite their struggles, the Sounders still have players of a high-enough caliber to do damage when given the chance.

Here's a look at some things to watch for this weekend.

What to expect from Seattle

Thanks to injury and underperformance, the Sounders have been searching for answers. Because of that, it's hard to pin down exactly what we'll see on Saturday. Sigi Schmid has predominantly run out a 4-3-3, but also has used a 4-2-3-1. Personnel-wise, it appears that Clint Dempsey and Nelson Valdez, who both have been practicing this week, will be back in the lineup in rave green. While that hasn't been a difference maker yet this season, it's undoubtedly an upgrade in terms of talent and experience.

Seattle is enjoying 52.1 percent possession through the first two months of the season, but it's probably unlikely it tries to dominate the ball against Columbus. It's more likely they try to maintain defensive shape and play opportunistic soccer. The Sounders pass the ball efficiently and do not turn it over often, though, so they are more than capable of controlling portions of the game.

Regardless of how the hosts set up, defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso is their key man. His usage rate is amongst the highest in the league, with a 12.98 touch percentage (fourth in MLS).

Alonso shields the back four and takes a lot of pressure off their shoulders, then gets the ball turned up field. Seattle likes to push the ball up the field with its fullbacks, especially Tyrone Mears on the right, where he is an important attacking piece with his crosses. Clint Dempsey also often drifts wide, as does midfielder Andreas Ivanschitz, who has been the most important attacking player.

Ivanschitz leads the team with as 2.89 expected goals (xG) plus expected assists (xA). He's posting 2.67 key passes per 96 and has a 9.19 touch percentage, which is the most among attacking players on the team.

Christian Roldan gets on the ball a lot as the third man in the midfield, but hasn't turned that into attacking production.

Even in possession, Seattle is near the bottom of the league in time spent in the attacking third. Instead, they keep the ball in the middle of the field. One key for Columbus will be if they can tilt the game out of the middle and into Seattle's end, or things may stall out in the middle of the field. And, as always, when the Black & Gold get their opportunities, they have to take them.

What's wrong with the Sounders?

Seattle simply isn't creating great looks at goal this season. A look at some basic statistics shows its possession and passing efficiency are as good or better than 2015, and shots per game are actually up from 9.7 per game last year to 13 per game this season. A horizontal field breakdown of attack and shooting reveals similar numbers.

So what gives?

The difference is in shot quality. Columbus has scored the same number of goals as the Sounders (seven), but has generally been unlucky, as it's under-performed compared to its expected goals, and has generated a lot of shots inside the 18-yard box, from where it takes 58 percent of its shots.

Seattle has been slightly unlucky when it comes to expected goal differential, but is still in the red, and that's something that won't change until it finds a way to break defenses down.

Consider the percentage of shots in the box for Crew SC, and then look at Seattle's — 46 percent. That's a 12 percent difference. Not only that, but it's eight percent lower than a year ago, when the Sounders were among the best in MLS at 9 percent of shots inside the 6-yard box. They are currently taking 49 percent of their shots from outside the penalty area, a 10 percent increase from 2015 (and compared to Columbus' current 37-percent clip).

Seattle is averaging 4.6 shots on target in 2016, which is up from 4.3 in 2015. But again, it's about efficiency, which has dropped from 43 percent a year ago to 35.4 percent now.

The Sounders are on pace for 39.3 expected goals this season (they posted 42.9 xG in 2015), while on pace to allow 49.86 expected goals against (38.62 xGA last season). If that goals against plays out, it would put them in the nether regions of MLS in that category. For a defense that is perceived to be pretty sound, that's not good. Consider that Seattle posts some of the lowest clearance and interception numbers in Major League Soccer (counting stats that have limited value,sbut combined with xGA might raise an eyebrow) and there's bound to be some concern.

From an attacking perspective, a shift to a 4-3-3 has certainly forced a learning curve. Throw in that some of those attacking players have been in and out of the lineup, and the continuity hasn't been there to settle in to the new system. And there's the question as to whether a 4-3-3 puts Dempsey in his best position.

But most of all there seems to be the lack of a midfielder who can really create centrally (Ivanschitz tends to drift wide more) and the absence of Obafemi Martins. Dempsey and Martins were one of the best attacking duos the league has ever seen, and their chemistry is what allowed Seattle to so often turn nothing into something with speed, tenacity and killer instinct. Their interplay created a loophole — they did what a No. 10 does for a lot of teams, albeit in a different form.

That's gone. What's left is a group of attackers who seem to be fine puzzle pieces but aren't fitting together to create a greater picture. The off-ball movement has often been lacking (Herculez Gomez has improved this in limited minutes thus far), leaving players to try lower-percentage shots (i.e., outside the box), or continue to cycle the ball, rather than get good looks at goal.

That's not to say there's nothing for Crew SC to worry about, just that the issues Seattle has are real.


Two wins in a row are nice, but go back even a week beyond that, and we find the last time the Black & Gold were on the road — the result wasn't pretty. That was played on the turf in Montreal, and Columbus will again have to contend with turf in Seattle. Against the Impact, the turf came up as an excuse a number of times. It was clear to anyone watching the game that the playing surface definitely wreaked some havoc on some attacking opportunities, but the bottom line is there is no room for excuses. Gregg Berhalter does not traditionally have his team prepare on turf, regardless of game-day surface. Crew SC can't afford to let that be an issue again.

The midfield conundrum for Columbus

You can never have enough depth. All of a sudden there are major questions in central midfield as Tony Tchani continues to try to get back from a calf strain and Mohammed Saeid is questionable with a concussion. The latter injury is generally treated with caution these days (and should be), so it seems likely that Saeid will miss this week. It's unclear how close to game fitness Tchani is, and even if he could play it would seem unlikely he'd have 90 minutes in him.

So that leaves...

First, the far-reaching options — Justin Meram in a central role, or moving Michael Parkhurst or Chad Barson into a defensive midfield role. The first would seem to fit better in a 4-3-3 and it's still not a great fit, though at least there's plenty of depth on the wing to fill in for Meram. Of the latter two, Parkhurst's veteran experience (and the fact we've seen Berhalter play him there in limited minutes, while Barson's been MIA for some time now) seem to give him the nod. But with Gaston Sauro still out, you'd be much weaker at center back.

The obvious answer is that rookie Rodrigo Saravia gets his first career start, and we cross our fingers and find out how ready he is.

Then again, Tchani is reportedly traveling with the team.

Set pieces

This feels like a game that could be decided by a set piece. Two teams that have struggled could find themselves neck and neck, and then all it takes is one dead-ball situation. Considering how CCSC has defended on set pieces, it's certainly a concern.

Seattle has quality dead-ball hitters in Dempsey and Ivanschitz, and a big target in Chad Marshall. The Sounders have scored three of their seven goals on set pieces this season.

For their part, the Sounders showed they can be vulnerable too, as they gave up last week's opening goal on a set piece in which Jermaine Jones watched the Red Sea part as he slid unmarked between two defenders for a headed goal. Columbus' set-piece defense too often looks the same.