Two wins in three games. That’s something Columbus Crew SC hasn’t been able to say all season until now. But this weekend appears daunting.
As the Black & Gold travel west to take on the Los Angeles Galaxy, it feels like you could put together a second (probably more entertaining) game between the players who won’t be available for this game. The challenges are widespread for both of these teams right now.
LA hasn’t won a game in seven weeks, but they’ve also only lost once in that stretch.
Who can best fill the voids on Saturday?
There will be no Harrison Afful; no Tony Tchani; no Justin Meram; no Wil Trapp; no Rodrigo Saravia. And there are even questions about Federico Higuain’s availability.
Ever wanted to live in a world where the absence of Saravia is terribly worrisome for Crew SC fans? Welcome!
That’s three defensive midfielders on that list, and that’s a problem for the Black & Gold. Who will play alongside Mohammed Saeid in the center of the field? Your guess is as good as mine.
Pipa’s presence will shape the attacking midfield group — if he’s not there, Duka likely slides in centrally with Christian Martinez or Cedrick Mabwati, who has continued to find it difficult to gain traction, in Meram’s left channel.
If Higuain is there, Duka seems the most like-for-like swap for Meram.
The scenario at defensive mid may force Columbus to change formation, something that hasn’t happened under Berhalter. A 4-1-4-1 with Saeid shielding the back line and four-man line in front of him is tied most closely to what the team normally does, but if Higuain is unavailable then trying to find three central midfielders on this roster is impossible.
A standard 4-4-2 might make the most sense, with Martinez/Mabwati, Duka, Saeid and Finlay as the mid four and Pipa, if healthy, a secondary striker paired with Ola Kamara. Or a grouping of Duka, Higuain, Saeid and Finlay behind Kamara and Adam Jahn. Or, without Higuain, Martinez/Mabwati, Duka, Saeid and Finlay behind that striking duo.
No matter how you slice it, there’s no defensive bite in the squad this week, and that’s worrisome. Saeid has excelled at being a positional, box-to-box type of midfielder; he was exposed at times during Trapp’s absence last season, when he was asked to sit even deeper. In this system, the thought that there is no true shield for a shaky defensive structure is problematic at best, downright frightening at worst.
At fullback, Hector Jimenez (facing his former team) at right back and Cory Ashe on the left seems a likely setup, but only if Ashe is fit. If not, expect to see Jimenez on the left and Chad Barson the right.
Los Angeles ausentes
For all of the holes in the Black & Gold squad this week, Los Angeles is the city of absent angels as well.
There will be no Nigel de Jong (for good, to Galatasaray), no Jelle Van Damme, no Steven Gerrrard, no Gyasi Zardes (for the rest of the season), no Robbie Keane. Scoff at the club’s aging stars, but Columbus could field no players at all and they still wouldn’t be missing four players with Champions League experience plus a United States international.
Keane continues to be one of the most dynamic attackers in the league, and Zardes’s 1.65 key passes per 96 minutes is second to only Gerrard and his expected goals + assists sits behind fellow absentees Keane and Gerrard.
Regardless of age or resume, these are big blows for Los Angeles. De Jong was a popular target for opposing fans, who saw an aging big name with a reputation for (sometimes poor) physical play, and he backed it up with a pair of suspensions in a relatively short stint in MLS. The reality, though, is that the Dutch midfielder was critical to the Galaxy’s style of play. He touched the ball more than anyone else on the field, and his savvy play allowed him to bounce the ball around the field to put it where it needed to be in transition. And he was physical.
Gerrard too, despite his up-and-down MLS stint thus far, offers heady, if not fleet-of-foot, midfield play (see numbers mentioned above; he leads the team in key passes per 96 by a large margin).
Jelle Van Damme has been very good on the back line, and his propensity to ping long balls down field to spring LA on the counter attack will be missed (this might be one of the most underrated voids for the Galaxy). The only player in a Los Angeles shirt who touched the ball more than Van Damme was de Jong.
These are huge obstacles for the team to overcome.
The likely replacements for LAG? Players like Mike Magee, Jeff Larentowicz and Baggio Husidic. While Columbus scrambles to find viable bodies, the Galaxy have MLS veterans to plug in. That depth is why LA will still be an extremely tough matchup.
What it will look like
Who knows. There are different possibilities. We could see a 4-2-3-1 with Jeff Larentowicz and Baggio Husidic as the deep-lying midfielders, which would maintain a similar shape to what the Galaxy played with a week ago against Vancouver, just swapping out personnel.
It could be a 4-4-2, with Larentowicz and Husidic in the middle, Emmanuel Boateng and Sebastian Lletget out wide and Alan Gordon and Giovanni dos Santos paired up top. In practice, this would likely play very similarly to the 4-2-3-1 above.
Those two are the most likely, as they are rooted in the same tactical approach and maintains the most continuity from what Los Angeles has been doing when fully staffed.
Or maybe Lletget pushes centrally (he stepped into Gerrard’s role when he left the field last week, but would seem to be better used in his natural position higher up the field) and Mike Magee plays out wide in the midfield. Or maybe dos Santos plays in a central midfield spot and Magee pairs up top with Gordon.
Regardless, LA may have to push its wing buildup a little more, especially on the right side, where Robbie Rogers and Lletget can combine and create overloads with dos Santos. Without some of the deeper pieces that normally swing the ball around the field, this puts more responsibility on others, whether its the fullbacks to push the ball up the wing even more or on attacking players to drop to get to the ball. That is good news for the Black & Gold.
Lletget and dos Santos will be left as the creative players for Los Angeles (1.3 and 1.36 key passes per 96, respectively), but without facilitators to get them the ball where they want it, could be asked to do more heavy lifting in the midfield. Larentowicz has played a lot of games in this league and Husidic is well-versed in Arena’s system and works hard, but neither offers the soccer IQ or vision that either of the previously-preferred central midfielders offer(ed).
Don’t get countered
This is one of the biggest things to keep an eye on for Crew SC. The absence of Van Damme, de Jong and Gerrard severely impact the Galaxy’s ability to counter quickly and smartly, but it’s still an approach I expect Los Angeles will take, and we all know that the defensive chances Gregg Berhalter takes with his teams will leave it open to said counter attacks. You really don’t want to see dos Santos in space running 1-v-1 with a defender.
How is this avoided? By staying fundamentally sound — don’t fall asleep, don’t turn the ball over in the midfield. Whoever is at right back for Columbus will need to be especially cautious, because LAG left winger Emmanuel Boateng has the speed to get in behind him.
Larentowicz and Husidic (if that is, indeed, who plays) need to find themselves under pressure as well. Crew SC must force them to make distribution decisions quickly — something they won’t do as well/consistently as the previous starters — and disrupt the ball getting to guys like dos Santos and Lletget higher up the field.
Were you a Crew SC fan nine years ago? I’m betting many of you weren’t, which means you’ve never seen Columbus win a game in Los Angeles, California. It’s been that long.
Part of that is the team doesn’t play at the Home Depot Center, or whatever they’re calling it now, every year, but it’s also because LA is pretty good almost every year and it’s a tough road trip.
Considering how the road has treated the Black & Gold this season, how frail the current, slightly better form appears and how the Galaxy seem better positioned thanks to their depth, a win this weekend might be a big ask. With points so desperately needed, that’s troublesome for Crew SC.
That said, this team may need to focus on getting maximum points the rest of the way in more manageable situations and hope they can, somehow, get a road draw out of this one.