What a week.
Controversy, speculation and, finally, the trade of a key cog in the Columbus Crew SC machine.
The reward? Now the Black & Gold have to host none other than the MLS-leading Colorado Rapids.
Yes, you read that right.
The Rapids have had a great start to the season while Crew SC has, well, not. In a week full of distractions and a game in which Columbus will have to figure out life post-Kei, the opposition has had just about everything going right. Can the Black & Gold move on quickly enough to overcome that? We take a closer look at the matchup.
Colorado isn't a mirage (yet)
It's hard to believe that the Rapids are currently leading the Western Conference and Supporter's Shield standings. It's got to be smoke and mirrors, right? Well, not really.
It's valid to question whether Colorado can maintain it's level of play over a full season. It's fair to ask how long Jermaine Jones can stay healthy. But the Rapids have earned every bit of where they stand thus far.
The underlying numbers support the early-season success, and while the Rapids are slightly overshooting in some areas, it's not by much. Their goals for are right on their expected goal numbers. Their total shot ratio (shots taken to shots allowed) is among the best in the West. They've allowed a couple less goals than expected, but even their expected goal differential has them among the top half of the conference.
So, yeah, this is the real deal, for now.
How have they done it?
It hasn't been sexy, but it's been effective. In that way, the Rapids are very much a reflection of manager Pablo Mastroeni. He was ravaged by many, and probably rightly so, for his ugly stint with the club prior to this season, and he even admitted to not doing a very good job. This season, however, he seems to be slowly changing that perception.
Colorado has been a well-organized, conservative team, but not a passive one. They have a back line with veterans like Bobby Burling and Marc Burch who set the tone, and fullbacks who are smart about when to activate into the attack.
The defensive midfield chips in with the no-frills play of Michael Azira (who I don't think anyone would guessed would be starting for a conference-leading side) and Sam Cronin, who is one of those guys who has been loved by every team he's ever played for, but has never garnered much widespread attention from fans. Those two guys operate on a string and remain well-connected in the middle.
The key for Colorado has been everything jumps from that well-organized defense right into the attack. The Rapids don't mess around in the midfield. Colorado is 19th in MLS in dribbles, 15th in total passes per game and 15th in passing percentage (74.2).
What the Rapids do is quickly get the ball out of its defensive third and high up the field, where they spend a good deal of their time, even as a team that doesn't boss possession. The key is the long ball, which Colorado uses to move the ball quickly down the field. But while some long-ball teams use the strategy to get behind the opposing back line and in on goal, for the Rapids its more of a transition technique. Azira and Cronin pivot the ball to Jones, who sends the ball in to be held up for support.
While the Rapids have a high-percentage of long balls, a majority of their key passes actually come on short passes. The long balls go to striker Kevin Doyle, who's a traditional hold-up No. 9 who brings the rest of the attack into play, where they can push the ball back and get off shots. Doyle has settled into MLS nicely after not being a huge factor in his first season in the league.
Marco Pappa has been out injured (and will be on Saturday) but Doyle's received help from Luis Solignac on the wing, another player who has been with the club but hadn't been super productive in the past. The other winger has typically been new signee Shkelzen Gashi, a former golden boot winner in the Swiss league.
The introduction of Jones has made things click, as the rambunctious, roaming midfielder has taken a liking to playing as an attacking midfielder — something we hadn't seen him do with either the U.S. Men's National Team or the New England Revolution. Without being tied to defensive responsibilities, he's attacked with abandon, spraying his trademark probing passes to his attacking trio and getting into dangerous positions on the field. His nose for getting into the box has resulted in three goals in five appearances since signing and waiting out his suspension.
And all of those guys love to shoot the long ball, which is a major tool in the Rapids' tool chest. Colorado is tied for fifth with 44% of their shots coming from outside the box (but are still second in MLS in shots on target).
The Rapids defeated Sporting Kansas City 1-0 in a midweek game Wednesday, and the lone goal came from, you guessed it, outside the box. Dillon Serna didn't even need to be on the field a minute to get in on the action.
Here's a buildup that's indicative of what Colorado does. There's Jones with a probing ball, Doyle with movement and a pass, Solignac providing danger and then a long shot blasted toward goal. Notice that Jones gets into a dangerous area after his initial pass.
Here's another example of how the Rapids spread the field, with Jones making a long pass that stretches the defense and then gets into a dangerous position.
Crew SC defenders cannot afford to ball watch. Fail to track a runner and he'll end up in a dangerous position. Fail to close down a shooter and he'll capitalize.
Make MacMath do the math
Crew SC has to make Colorado goalkeeper Zac MacMath work. While the club has a reputation as being steady defensively, and it has even allowed fewer goals than an expected stats-based model would predict, that's actually despite MacMath.
MacMath currently sits tied for third worst in the league with an G-xG of 1.8. That's essentially where he was last season, and even though he was slightly closer to the top of the bottom third then, it shows he's playing about how one might expect. To understand that number, think of it like this — a keeper who makes only the saves expected of him would sit at 0.0; a keeper who goes above and beyond that and saves his team goals has a negative number; a keeper who does less than the expectation posts a positive number.
So MacMath isn't the reason his team is keeping the ball out of the back of the net, and he has a history of struggling to command the area. Columbus has to put the ball there, make him make saves and make him make decisions on dangerous balls.
Prepare to get physical
In the past there's been a stigma attached to Columbus — get physical, get in its head and get it off its game. Colorado will be physical. It is first in the league in fouls per game and first in yellow cards (but it hasn't been reckless — still no red cards).
If the Black & Gold can't handle that physicality, it will be a long game. Tony Tchani has been on and off the injury report and in and out of the gameday 18. This is one where Crew SC could really use a healthy, in-form Tchani.
We've spent so much of this week discussing how Columbus stacks up in the air now that Kei Kamara is gone. We may find out very quickly.
Colorado is a very good aerial team, winning 55% of balls in the air. It makes sense with a traditional No. 9, good size on the wings, a physical Jones and guys like Burling and 6-foot-7 Axel Sjoberg on defense.
The Rapids have also scored four of their 14 goals of set pieces. That doesn't even include a goal like Serna's (video above) against Kansas City, where a free kick began the play and Serna took advantage of a second ball.
Kamara was not only an athletic forward, but also a huge part of the team's defense on set pieces into the box. In an area where Crew SC has notoriously struggled, that may be problematic against Colorado this weekend.
As much as anything, the biggest question this weekend for Columbus is how does the club move on? A controversy and the trade of a marquee player both hung heavy over the week leading up to the game. Now the team has to flip the switch and get back to business, while trying to figure out how to play without its target.
Those things may prove as big a challenge as the team lining up across the field.