clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Massive Scouting Report: D.C. United’s defense and the challenge for Crew SC

A game between two bottom-half Eastern Conference sides feels like a must-win for Columbus. What will it take to shake the doldrums?

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at New England Revolution Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

After a disappointing draw against Toronto FC at midweek, Columbus Crew SC gets another chance to prove itself at home on Saturday when it welcomes D.C. United to MAPFRE Stadium.

United sits outside the playoff picture at the moment and doesn’t exactly intimidate, but does provide, as always, a tricky matchup for the Black & Gold in a clash between very different styles.

Besides, right now Columbus sits last in the Eastern Conference — every opponent should be considered a formidable one for Crew SC.

Still, if CCSC wants to make the playoffs, it’s going to have to beat the other teams who are also on the outside looking in. It’s almost a must-win, as the season continues to slide further and further into the abyss.

Can Columbus turn up the intensity of the light at the end of the tunnel? Or will it continue to fade into the distance.

Consider some things to watch for this weekend...

What D.C. does

What D.C. United does on the field hasn’t changed much. It’s Benny ball, and we all know what that means — nobody’s going to be regaling their grandchildren with the thrilling days of Ben Olsen-led DCU soccer. That said, the club has often found ways to win.

In recent weeks, United has gone with a 4-1-4-1 formation. The setup forgoes attacking strength in the middle of the field for width and defensive stability.

Predictably, D.C. is not a possession-heavy team. It averages 47.5 percent possession, which is 18th in MLS.

United has built a defensive identity on keeping numbers behind the ball, remaining organized defensively and making opponents work to get good opportunities. DCU is middle of the pack in allowing 12.9 shots per game, yet its 16 goals allowed is third best in the league. That discrepancy comes from a unit that’s dictating where and when opponents are taking shots.

Jared Jefferies shields the back line, and then Marcelo Sarvas essentially acts as a second defensive midfielder (he’s been very good at breaking up plays).

You can see how deep D.C. sits based on where it is intercepting the ball. Not once against the Philadelphia Union did it intercept the ball in Philly’s half of the field.

DCU interceptions vs. Philly

Throw in the return of Bill Hamid in goal, and United is a team that’s going to be stingy.

If there’s a weakness defensively, it’s that the back line is not particularly fast and against Philadelphia it struggled defending in some 1v1 situations, which the Union turned into a pair of penalty kicks (and possibly could have had another).

When D.C. does attack, it’s up the left side. That’s where left back Taylor Kemp pushes up the field and combines with Fabian Espindola, who is undoubtedly the most consistently dangerous attacker United will put on the field. He’s experienced, crafty and can really hit on the counter. Nick Deleon, who has moved from an outside midfielder into the center of the park this year, then slides over to provide even more support on the left.

DCU vs. Philly

D.C.’s dead zone

That tendency to slide to the left is basically vacating Zone 14. With Sarvas doing a lot of defensive work and a group of strikers who are in-the-box guys and not on-the-ball attackers, there’s not a whole lot doing. Instead, you’re seeing a lot of longer balls into the box or crosses off the left foot of Kemp.

Alvaro Saborio seems like the likely striker, and he provides a big, veteran presence, but his influence has lessened as he’s advanced in years.

The Zone 14 gap has produced an interesting statistical note. D.C. is is third in MLS with 46 percent of its shots coming from outside the box. It is also, however, best in the league in getting shots from inside the 6-yard box, at 9 percent. The curiosity is the space in between: D.C.’s 46 percent mark inside the 18-yard box is dead last in MLS.

That would appear to be a sign of a team that’s not breaking teams down in the run of play and not getting the ball at feet around the box and attacking. Instead, they’re either getting high-percentage counter-attack looks or serving the ball in on crosses and set pieces.

The questions all of this raises

Can Columbus move past its useless possession? It’s very possible that CCSC can breach the 60% possession mark again. Recently, that’s done nothing for them.

Can Columbus figure out how to break down a team? There are going to be a lot of United players behind the ball. Bunker-busting has always been an issue under Gregg Berhalter, and even more so now without a proven creative option on the field.

Can Columbus avoid making things easy for DCU? D.C. may not get a ton of looks at goal, but it’s adept at getting some good ones. The Crew SC defense can’t offer any help with lazy breakdowns. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security when you’re not under a ton of pressure.

Can Harrison Afful find the right balance? Columbus is going to need Afful to help create some opportunities in the back, but he also needs to be responsible defensively against a team that’s going to build into the attack on his side of the field.

The Loyd Sam wild card

The X-factor in all of this is Loyd Sam. The midfielder was acquired from the New York Red Bulls a couple of weeks ago and was with the team for its loss in Philadelphia, though he did not see the field. Is this the week he gets in on the action?

In New York, Sam was largely a right-sided attacking midfielder. He was, however, used on occasion in a central midfield spot.

How will D.C. use him? Will he provide some attacking quality centrally? Or will he be used wide, pushing either Espindola or Lamar Neagle higher up into some version of a 4-4-2?

It’s something for Crew SC fans to keep an eye on. His skill should be a boost for United, but his presence may also slide someone else into a role in which they can be more dangerous as well, crating a domino effect.

The double pivot

It’s quite obvious that D.C. is going to maintain numbers behind the ball. We’ve seen Columbus struggle with this in the past. We’ve also watched it continually search for some sort of playmaker with Federico Higuain injured.

But the answer in this game might be to rely on someone of a deeper-lying nature.

Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp have both had a couple of nice chance-creation moments during the last couple of weeks. That may be the key for Crew SC this week.

By the time the attack is in full possession of the ball and set up in the attacking third, D.C. will already be organized defensively and tough to break down. The Black & Gold do not rely on counter attacking and are unlikely to cede much possession to DCU, but they will have to make the most of opportunties to catch United with space behind the defense.

The best way to do that will be with long, splitting passes from Tchani or Trapp when they do transition the ball out of the middle of the field.

With Ola Kamara’s ability to create dangerous movement up top, there should be some opportunities to do this.

This isn’t the perfect example, but you get the idea:

It’s not about the opponent

It’s a total cliche, but sometimes it’s true. Like when you can get out of your own way. Right now, that’s where the Black & Gold are. In the middle of the season with some winnable games at home, the biggest thing for Columbus isn’t what the opponent might do. It’s what Crew SC does. Can the team go beyond the surface control of the game to actually put a stranglehold on it? Can it move the ball more intelligently and with more purpose and turn possession into excellent chances? Can it see out a game when it has a chance to take maximum points?

There’s no more room for excuses or for allowing room for the opponent to do what it wants. If Crew SC can’t play Crew SC soccer and convert that into three points, we’re simply looking at a long, two-month funeral for the season.