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Massive Scouting Report: Purple, points and Kaka as Crew SC hosts Orlando

Columbus has another great chance at three points. Can it do what it’s recently failed to do when Orlando City comes to town?

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Call it a must win for Columbus Crew SC. Call it what you will, there’s no questioning that today’s game against visiting Orlando City SC is critically important for the Black & Gold.

Both teams have been shorthanded. Both teams have struggled — Orlando City to the point that it made the decision to part ways with the only coach the city has ever known.

Here’s a look at some things to keep an eye on this evening.

Intensity

This is a matchup that turned into a bit of a surprising rivalry last season in the Lions’ first season in MLS. Will it carry that intensity today? Will Columbus find a way to stop playing for the individual and start playing for the team?

Both clubs can really use this victory. Orlando to try to snap a four-game winless stretch and have something positive to build on as Jason Kreis installs his methodology.

Columbus... Well, Columbus, if it can’t find the edge and intensity to get past a struggling team at MAPFRE Stadium, may be signing its 2016 death certificate. Or at least identifying the body.

The MLS standings are the wild west — anything can happen. There is still time to make a run, regardless of current standing. But if Crew SC can’t find a way to win this one, there will be little belief in resuscitation left.

How the Lions play

Kreis may be the new headman, but he won’t be coaching this week and it will take some time for him to sink his fangs in. So don’t expect anything to change as far as approach on the field.

Expect a 4-2-3-1. Brek Shea will likely be on the left wing, with Kevin Molino on the right and Kaka in the middle. Molino probably isn’t appreciated by fans around the league as much as he should have. He has the ability to stretch the field wide, but it also good on the ball and is averaging 1.5 key passes per game.

The double pivot of Christian Higuita (10.2 touch percentage) and Darwin Ceren (10.9) are the key. Higuita might be the best young defensive midfielder in MLS. These two are the destroyers and the transition men.

The buildup comes mostly on the left with overloads thanks to left back Luke Boden (who actually leads the team in touch percentage) and through that middle trio of Higuita, Ceren and whoever is in the attacking center mid role.

Orlando’s heat map from last weekend’s draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps. It’s indicative of the team’s typical shape:

Orlando heat map vs. Vancouver
WhoScored.com

Things shift, though, as City is dead last in the league in shots from the left, and tied for fifth in percentage of shots from the right. It’s also heavily centralized, which should be no surprise with Cyle Larin roaming up top. He’s also a major reason why Orlando is among the best teams in the league at generating shots inside the 18-yard box.

Watch for Larin’s presence, obviously, but Molino cutting in from the right could be a danger as well. Whoever plays as the central attacking mid will likely shade to the left side of the field, and create space in their wake.

The defense has been a major issue for OCSC. It’s too often been disorganized, and it’s allowing 15.1 shots per game, which is third most in the league.

This is a problem because, despite some of the apparent talent, the Lions are only managing 11.4 shots per game on the attacking end, which is 17th in MLS. Because of that, their total shot ratio of .431 is 18th in the league, and TSR is generally a good measure of how well a team is playing (in an interesting anomaly, the Los Angeles Galaxy are worst in MLS with a TSR of .409, yet have the fourth most points in the table).

Orlando City’s goal differential analytics don’t create a pretty picture either. At a 4.89 GD-xGD, the highest in MLS, it would appear the OCSC is actually overachieving, even despite its current standing in the Eastern Conference.

It can’t blame goalkeeper Joe Bendik either — his GA-xGA is not far off the baseline.

No, this is a defensive issue, and the main reason that Columbus has an opportunity to win.

They’re baaaaa-aack

The bad news for the Black & Gold is that Orlando is looking much closer to full strength than it has been. Shea did not play last week due to yellow-card accumulation, but will return to the lineup (one would assume).

Most importantly, Kaka is expected to be back from injury. He last played July 5 in a loss to Dallas. Kaka does not fix all of Orlando’s woes, but he does make them more dangerous, and considering that Columbus has defensive vulnerabilities, the Brazilian legend will have a major impact.

He’s not overly ball dominant, but Orlando will look to get him the ball in the attacking third and he’ll definitely play a role in those left-side overloads. His expected goals + expected assists per 96 minutes is .93, which is fourth in MLS and only second among regular starters. The only player ahead of him? Ola Kamara.

Kaka is averaging 2.72 key passes per 96 minutes.

His presence is critical because it helps draw defenses away from Larin, whose xG+xA is 9.85. That’s upper echelon. Among players in that tier, his 4.0 touch percentage is extremely low. In fact, the only player ahead of him? You guessed it, Ola Kamara.

It tells you a lot about Larin — he’s big, he’s athletically, he gets in good spots. But he’s not a water carrier, which is why Kaka’s return is so big. Larin won’t create for himself, so he needs others to do so for him. Now someone will.

Possession will, again, keep the ball away from those danger players as much as possible, but, as usual, the Crew SC defense will have to be smart and avoid getting drawn out of orbit by Kaka’s gravity. Larin can get the ball out of his feet very quickly, so the key will be pushing him to areas of the field he doesn’t want to be in and disrupting service. That starts even before Kaka. That comes from preventing Higuita and Ceren from funneling the ball where they want to in transition.

Here’s an example of Larin using his physical ability to turn on the ball in a flash and create a chance:

Note to Crew SC: Don’t let him float in the box, don’t give him time to shoot.

Two minutes after that chance he scored on a header at the far post that he made look easy.

What about Pipa?

We’re entering the period of time in which a Federico Higuain return is feasible. He’s been practicing with the team, so we know he’s getting close. Is this the week? Even if he were to play, would he really be 100 percent? Would that matter?

Higuain is so important to the tempo and rhythm that Columbus plays with in Gregg Berhalter’s system. That is incredibly invaluable, and I think that has been on display during his absence. His return could help the Black & Gold find their footing a little bit.

He also could help pull and push the Orlando defensive midfielders out of the spots they want to be in, and limit their ability to pivot the Lions into the attack.

BE AGGRESSIVE, B-E AGGRESSIVE

In the attack, that is. Orlando is second in the league in total cards. They are second in fouls per game. This is a team that will give up dead ball situations in dangerous spots if you force the issue (free kicks — just another area where Pipa would boost the team). Columbus needs to.

Heads up

Every week it seems like it has gotten worse — Columbus gets the ball in possession, works it into the attacking third and then holds the ball a beat or two too long. It’s impossible to know what’s going on in the locker room, but on the field it doesn’t look like a team playing for each other.

There’s too much dribbling. Too many heads down, slow to recognize the next available pass. The best players think one step ahead, but right now Crew SC looks like it’s only thinking in the moment.

Keep your head up in the run of play, and you might have a reason to keep your head up when you look at the scoreboard after the final whistle.