Three draws in a row. A month without a victory. Columbus Crew SC needs to find a way to get out of neutral in a hurry, before it finds itself in too big a hole to dig out of.
On Saturday the task will be to take out a dangerous Real Salt Lake team that has solidified itself among the top half of Western Conference teams. There have been some ups and downs for RSL, but this is a dangerous side with talented pieces.
Here's a look at some of what's on tap when Salt Lake comes to MAPFRE Stadium, and a few things to watch for.
What to expect
RSL struggled a bit to transition from the Jason Kreis era into Jeff Cassar's system, but has appeared pretty comfortable in its 4-3-3 system this season.
Some of that has to do with the addition of Juan Manuel Martinez. You might know him as Burrito. His flashy skills on the right wing have added a new dimension and filled a hole for Real.
A healthy Jaoa Plata has a lot to do with the system's success as well.
RSL has shown a comfort level both controlling the game with possession and countering, but we're likely to see the latter on Saturday. Expect Salt Lake to allow Columbus to control possession while remaining organized defensively and looking to punish the Black & Gold for mistakes or lapses.
A look at RSL's game just a week ago probably provides some clues, as Salt Lake put out what is essentially a first-choice lineup, allowed Sporting Kansas City to win possession and then punched SKC in the mouth when there was a letdown. At times Real put 11 players behind the ball, and it's likely to do so this week as well.
There are two young center backs in Aaron Maund and Justen Glad, but disciplined team defense has helped them (and, at this point, Jamison Olave has a lot of holes in his game). The pairing of Kyle Beckerman and newcomer Sunny in defensive midfield has also created a nice shield for the back four.
They're also the pivot of a team that is strong in its spine, which it uses to transition to its skilled wingers. Beckerman's touch percentage is second on the team (10.9 percent). The only player higher is the one who plays in front of him, Javier Morales. Javi-Mo (11.5 percent) has been an elite playmaker for years, as we keep waiting for age to show. His ability to put his wingers and striker Yura Movsysian in dangerous positions is critical.
Playing inside out is what Salt Lake wants to do, and they want to keep the ball at feet — Real is dead last in crosses in MLS, setting up a stark contrast with CCSC.
Here's RSL's first goal against Sporting KC last week:
In a quick succession of passes you get both wingers touching the ball, with Morales' subtle shift of the hips allowing him to swing the ball back and push it into the path of Plata for a beautiful buildup to a goal. This is what RSL is capable of.
Salt Lake is in the midst of a five-game road swing. It lost its first two games by 1-0 scores to the Colorado Rapids and Houston Dynamo, before skunking SKC last week, 3-1. When RSL gets to Columbus it will be its fourth of five road games in this stretch. It's been a manageable stretch, distance-wise, but it still puts some wear on a team. Columbus has to take advantage of that and make sure its intensity and focus pushes RSL from the start.
Real Salt Lake has struggled to score goals at times, but it's still found ways to be successful. A look at the table puts RSL with 1.7 goals per game. That's fourth-best in the Western Conference and better than any team in the Eastern Conference.
Morales has long been the face and feet and brain of RSL's attack. In many ways he still is, but part of the reason he's been able to age well is that Plata has been so good next to him. That's why a healthy Plata has meant so much to Salt Lake in recent years, and often his fitness has directly correlated to the team's success.
Many think of Plata as a small but speedy and crafty attacker who can score goals. That's true, but his impact comes in making his teammates better in a way that many may not realize. Plata's 3.24 key passes per 96 minutes is actually the best on the team (slightly ahead of Morales). That number is also elite within Major League Soccer. A look at the regulars who post a better KPp96 than Plata shows just what sort of company he is in — Sacha Kljestan, Diego Valeri, Mauro Diaz, Lee Nguyen, Kaka. Only the best playmakers in the league.
Last week Crew SC faced its fair share of set pieces from Toronto FC and weathered the storm. This week set pieces will again play a major role.
Salt Lake has five set-piece goals in 2016, which is tied for third in the league. With Morales and Plata both proven free-kick takers, along with Martinez' ability, there are threats on any dead ball situation in the attacking third. Movsisyan is a sturdy target, as are the center backs. And RSL is fourth in MLS in fouls drawn, creating opportunities to take advantage on set pieces.
On the flip side of things, Salt Lake has given up more corner kicks than any other team in the league. That has to do with not always controlling the ball but doing a good job staying in front of it with defensive organization. It's a bend-but-don't-break approach that often offers up corner kicks. But RSL has yet to concede a goal from a corner all season. It means that there's no reason for it to alter that defensive approach, which is one that Columbus has always had trouble breaking down.
Real Salt Lake loves to feast on turnovers. SKC found this out the hard way. The team's width and speed up top is perfect for getting in transition quickly, especially with a guy like Beckerman and his high soccer IQ breaking up plays and sending them the other way.
Columbus absolutely cannot turn the ball over in dangerous areas.
That video of the goal above? That came on a bad Sporting turnover.
Play passing lanes, force long balls
If Crew SC can be organized defensively and pressure the ball higher up the field, it can take Salt Lake out of its game. RSL is 18th in MLS in total passes. It doesn't ping the ball around, it moves it quickly with its spine and lets guys like Martinez — who loves a good 1v1 matchup — dribble at defenders (RSL is fourth in MLS in dribbles per game).
Of the passes it does make, it tends to make a high amount of innacurate long balls.
If Columbus can remain disciplined in passing lanes and force Salt Lake to look down field, it can limit the opportunities the attacking quartet has to get the ball at its feet in the attacking third and take players on.
What the heck is Columbus going to do on defense?
Gaston Sauro is out. Tyson Wahl might be too. What's the answer next to Michael Parkhurst at center back? Being able to answer that question could be the difference maker. Otherwise things could get ugly.
If I was putting together an all-time MLS 11, I would put him between the pipes.
There's not really anything Columbus can do about him.