The rising (if slight) positivity surrounding Columbus Crew SC the past couple of weeks took a hit with a midweek loss, 2-1, to the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday. A quick turnaround provides the club with an opportunity to either swiftly move on or dig its hole deeper (growing closer to six feet deep) in a hurry.
The San Jose Earthquakes come to town battling for their own lives in a tight Western Conference. The Quakes are currently occupying the sixth and final playoff position out west, but that can change quickly for a team that has just one victory in its last six matches.
In other words, both clubs are struggling and both have a ton to play for. Here are a couple of things to think about as the two teams match up on Saturday.
Watch the wings
You’re not going to get an attacking revolution from a Dominic Kinnear-coached team. San Jose is going to stay conservative and play out of a traditional 4-4-2, with a pair of defensive-minded midfielders in the center.
This leaves the Earthquakes leaning heavily on their wings and their striker tandem to generate offense, with a right-side-leaning attack. Alberto Quintero flanks that right side and leads the team with 1.68 key passes per 96 minutes. Simon Dawkins works the left side; those wide midfielders do the bulk of generating offense, especially on the dribble — San Jose paces all MLS teams in dribble attacks. As a result it’s also the most fouled team in the league.
San Jose’s not going to build out of the back, they’re going to use center mid Anibal Godoy (team-high 11.2 touch percentage) as a box-to-box pivot who gets the ball to the wide players higher up the field as quickly as possible.
This all can cause some problems for Columbus, because although the Earthquakes are not an attacking juggernaut, they do attack an area that Crew SC often leaves vulnerable with its attacking fullbacks high up the field. Quintero and Dawkins could find themselves left 1-on-1, which is exactly what they want.
And the pair of strikers up top — Chris Wondolowski and Quincy Amirakwa — can occupy the center backs. So the defensive midfield duo of Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp will have to be very aware of what’s going on to shift and provide help both centrally and wide.
The forwards provide a lot of support centrally, with Amarikwa and substitute Chad Barrett actually two of the team’s top four in terms of key passes per 96 (Barrett actually leads the team at 1.71).
Then Wondo does what Wondo does — get into dangerous, high-percentage spots around goal. He has nine on the season and of the top 20 MLS players this season in terms of expected goals, his 2.32 shots per game is the lowest. So that speaks to his quality of opportunities.
Also interesting to note that both Wondolowski and Amarikwa have notably low unassisted goal percentages at 26.1 and 19.6, respectively. They won’t be trying to break people down, but the Crew SC center backs and D-mids will have to be able to match their intensity level and track them well around the box.
Worry about the wide players with the ball and the forwards without.
Concede some possession
I’ve been preaching this for a while, considering the attacking stagnation that has beset Crew SC this season. The Black & Gold will always be a possession team under Gregg Berhalter, so I’m not advocating that they suddenly lose the possession battle. But maybe 52 or 53 percent possession might do them some good, rather than 58 or 59 percent.
It’s thin margins, but cracks open the window a little for more explosive attacking in space, which is something (again) the team could use. The Quakes are allowing just 12.4 shots on goal per game, which is sixth in MLS. They do that with a generally conservative 4-4-2 with two defensive midfielders and fullbacks who are defensively responsible. It’s going to take a little coaxing to pull the defense out and find space behind.
Another reason to allow San Jose to play with the ball a little? To my eye, the Earthquake defense can look a little shaky under pressure. Some high press would probably do Columbus some good this weekend. You can’t press the back line when you have the ball.
Attacking-wise, San Jose hasn’t been particularly efficient. Its 11.8 shots per game is 18th in MLS and its 3.6 on target per game is the lowest number in the league. So if ever there’s a time when you can afford to allow your opponent a little more of the ball, this would be it.
A broader view
9 — games remaining after Saturday
3 — number of those games at MAPFRE Stadium
5 — points out of a playoff spot
7 — number of remaining games, including this one, against teams fighting for the final playoff spot in their respective conference
2 — games remaining against, Chicago, the only team in the league currently worse off than the Black & Gold
How do those numbers make you feel? Hopeful or despondent?
Does it even matter?
It’s probably a discussion for another time, but is making the playoffs the best thing for this team? Sure, it’s kind of fun ... if you don’t get hammered once you get there, but would it be putting lipstick on a pig? Would it lesson the impact of critical questions to be asked of the players, the coach and the front office?
This season has no context right now. Is trying to stay out of the basement the reality for the club? Or is something more like 2015 closer? Which is the anomaly? What will 2017 look like?
Making the playoffs by the skin of your teeth doesn’t change any of those question marks.