Go back 18 or so months, and a matchup between Columbus Crew SC and the New England Revolution would have been hailed as a marquee showdown between the two clubs that are ringing in the next era of Major League soccer.
Now, both teams are scraping just to be in the playoff mix. It’s been 11 games since Crew SC last won. That’s two months. It’s a number that’s almost incomprehensible.
New England is not much more well off (though seven points higher in the standings is a solid, though surmountable, gap), and is coming off a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of the Philadelphia Union.
Can a Black & Gold side who has been woeful on the road (even more woeful than it has been overall) possibly go to Foxborough Stadium and come away with some sort of points?
Here’s a look at some key aspects of the matchup.
What we may see
I won’t spend a ton of time breaking down what New England does, since I already did some of that here, when the teams met the first time. You can also see my reaction to that game — half-hewn personnel, defensive disasters and all — here.
The bulk of those points and observations remains.
The Revs remain a team with a positive total shot ratio (they take more shots than they concede), but they have defensive issues.
Across the field, New England’s personnel is the same as it was five weeks ago when the teams last met, so while there’s always the possibility of a change or two, this will largely be the same opponent that plays the same way.
The Revolution remain the most right-sided attack in the league, in terms of build-up, which makes Columbus’ left-back conundrum (which we’ll get to later) especially problematic.
Here’s New England’s attacking dashboard from last week against Philadelphia:
This is not quite as right-sided, but does indicate what the Union did well and why they were able to quell the Revs’ attack.
You can see New England went very direct in its attack, with a lot of crosses and little else. Philly was able to clamp down on Lee Nguyen and limit his influence in the middle of the field, and that went a long way into shutting out the Revolution.
That will be easier said than done for the Black & Gold, but will still be necessary. This is where the budding partnership between Naess and Michael Parkhurst will be critical — knowing and communicating who and when to push out on Nguyen when he has the ball facing goal. The defensive midfielders will also have to help mark the No. 10 out of the game and cut off the ball before it gets to him.
Lee is the key. (Sorry, had to)
What’s better for Crew SC
"Better" has been a relative team this campaign for the team in black and yellow. There are, however, two differences for Columbus that could be difference makers.
The last time Crew SC played New England, Federico Higuain was absent (Mohammed Saeid was playing in the attacking mid role) and Chad Barson started at center back.
Now, Saeid will be in the lineup again and Barson may be as well, but they will be in more appropriate roles.
Meanwhile, Higuain is so key to the tempo of the attack, which had one of its brightest performances of the season a week ago. And Nicolai Naess means that Columbus will have two real center backs on the field to handle Kei Kamara and company.
Don’t underestimate the value of those two changes.
Who’s left at left back?
It’s very unclear who will be playing left back for Columbus on Saturday. Waylon Francis went down last week and reportedly has a labrum tear and could miss the rest of the season. He can now get in line behind the rest of the things that have gone wrong for the Black & Gold this season.
On top of that, Corey Ashe, who would be the next option (he’s often been the first choice this season) has been out with a knee injury. It sounds like he’s close to coming back, but that’s a question that will likely last until the game.
Beyond them? We’re looking at Chad Barson or Hector Jimenez, the former of which has never been able to rise up the depth chart under Gregg Berhalter and the latter of which is a utility knife and good soldier for his coach, but not really a true fullback.
Against a Revolution team with some quality wingers and a preference to build on the right side, and in a Crew SC system where the fullbacks are so important, it’s just another nick in what’s been very thin armor in 2016.
In the days since the infamous Kei Kamara trade, it’s looked more and more like Columbus got the right side of the deal. Kamara hasn’t been much more than average in New England, Ola Kamara has scored a lot of goals in Columbus and Crew SC turned a big haul of allocation money and such into, well, Naess (mostly).
Now Naess and Kei battle head to head.
Naess had a strong debut for the Black & Gold, so it should be exciting to see how he takes a hold of one of those center back spots. This week provides an opportunity for him to continue to make a statement by helping limit Kamara’s impact. If he can do that, not only will it make Columbus brass look smart, but it will go a long way into getting some points on the road.
A blip or a turning point?
What are we to make of watching Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay finally dig out of the doldrums against New York City FC? It’s very unclear at this point whether that was a blip on the radar or truly some kind of turning point for the two wingers. We should get a glimpse into that answer this week.
Finlay’s performance was especially buoying, as he created all kinds of problems for the defense and a brace could offer a much needed confidence boost. But more than the goals, this was my favorite Finlay moment of the day:
Finlay’s run is what opens up just enough space for Meram to head that ball unimpeded. It’s little, but gorgeous.
Columbus will need more of what we saw last week from its wingers — creativity, aggressiveness and finishing.
It goes without saying that Crew SC needs to do a better job of actually doing something when it has all of the possession it always has. It’s worth emphasizing this week, though, because New England’s defense can be a bit of a mess.
I talked about this the first time I reviewed what the Revs bring to the table, but the Black & Gold can exploit what can often be a defense in disarray with explosive, pointed attacking. Flurries, not a steady drizzle. And that has nothing to do with possession and everything to do with going for the jugular.
Look at Philadelphia’s first goal last week. It comes out of nothing, but shows a Revolution defense that lets down in many senses of the phrase.
And doesn’t that look like a goal that’s right in Columbus’ wheelhouse? Replace Fabinho with a Crew SC fullback or winger. And C.J. Sapong’s finish is something we’ve seen from Ola Kamara before.
And then there’s Philly’s second goal:
New England can’t clear, and then they can’t stop the ball, as Ilsinho ravages four or five defenders. It’s painful to watch for Columbus fans who have seen this from their own defense too often. But the point is that this week the Revolution have similar issues, and the Black & Gold can’t afford to let that go unpunished.
The Revs’ goalkeeping is average to just below average when it comes to stopping shots. If Columbus doesn’t score goals, there will likely be no one to blame but itself.