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Massive Scouting Report: Crew SC v D.C. United in critical matchup

Columbus has a chance to make a statement and increase its playoff odds in a midweek game against D.C. Here are things to watch for.

MLS: D.C. United at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Somehow, Columbus Crew SC has found a way to stay alive in the playoff race. Now it gets a chance to take on the team that holds the final postseason spot at the moment, D.C. United.

United has been playing better — and differently — than the last time the Black & Gold faced them and played to a 1-1 home draw.

With so much pressure on both of these teams, here’s a primer for tonight’s game.

A big loss for D.C.

Last week, D.C. United midfielder Marcelo Sarvas left with an injury and is expected to miss at least a few weeks.

His touch percentage is 12.1 percent, which is sixth in the league and puts him in the company of Michael Bradley, Nicolas Lodeiro, Osvaldo Alonso, Nigel de Jong, Javier Morales and Diego Valeri. When you think about those guys, you think about guys that make their team go (or did). That’s how important Sarvas has been to DCU this season.

Throw in his defensive responsibilities playing as the D-mid in a 4-1-4-1 — his 3.6 tackles per game and 3 interceptions per game far and away lead the team — and expect his absence to be conspicuous.

When Sarvas went out midway through the first half against Orlando City, Ben Olsen responded by sliding box-to-box guy Rob Vincent into Sarvas’ role and bringing in rookie Julian Buescher to play a more advanced role.

It’s unclear if that is what D.C. will do in this game, but it’s one viable option.

What else to expect

I already mentioned the 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 United plays (it’s more likely to look like the former against a Crew SC side that will control the majority of possession).

That has worked because Sarvas has done all the dirty work, while Luciano Acosta has given the club some flair it long had been missing. It took Acosta a little while to adjust to MLS, but has since been excellent. His 2.24 KPp96 is second on the team. Although he plays as a central midfielder, watch for him to drift to either side of the field to look for space.

Acosta touches the ball more than anyone else in the attack, but another critical player in the buildup is left back Taylor Kemp, who often leads the team in touches on any given night. With Acosta drifting, United likes to build up the left side using those two to link up and get the ball into attack. Kemp’s also got a nice left foot to provide service on crosses or set pieces.

Up top, Patrick Mullins has been a revelation since coming over in a midseason trade from New York City FC. Mullins is third in Major League Soccer in expected goals per 96 minutes, behind only Ola Kamara and Robbie Keane among players with at least 1,000 minutes played (and higher than David Villa, Fanendo Adi, Sebastian Giovinco, Bradley Wright-Phillips...well, you get the idea).

He doesn’t have any particular standout skill, but his movement and nose for goal is tremendous. The Columbus defense has to be aware of where he is, because he has a knack for finding open space in the box to poach goals.

With the work that Rob Vincent and Sarvas have done, combined with those three players, it has allowed wide players Lloyd Sam and Patrick Nyarko to be perfect complements and offer both pace and creative thought in the attack. Nyarko in particular has seen a resurgence this season, when healthy.

The key for Columbus will be, first, defensive organization — tracking Mullins and making sure Acosta doesn’t find ways to get isolated 1v1 to create for others.

Second, Crew SC has to be ready and willing to boss the central midfield. Vincent has traditionally been a box-to-box guy, not a defensive shield. Acosta is skillful but doesn’t want to have to come back to do defensive work. And if Buescher is the fill-in, he’s a rookie who lost a lot of time this season to injury, so his experience is limited. Of course, the Black & Gold have had a void as far as central attack goes, so that is all easier said than done.

And, of course, set-piece defense is always a concern against D.C. They have guys who can draw fouls, and Kemp and Acosta are both adept at hitting dead balls, with players like the crafty Mullins or aerial threats Steve Birnbaum and Bobby Boswell to get on the end.

Worth noting that Buescher, who looked like a promising young addition entering the season but lost a ton of time to injury, does actually lead the team in KPp96, so he can’t be ignored.

Form assessment

A lot has been made of D.C. United’s solid late-season form, and that’s fair. But it’s also worth taking a closer look at.

One loss in its last 10 is nothing to thumb your nose at, but go back three games and look at a 2-2 road draw at New York Red Bulls and you’ll see a game in which DCU was lucky not to find itself down 5- or 6-0. A pair of posts, a couple of great saves by Bill Hamid and a couple of missed opportunities cost New York a comfortable win.

In the two games since, D.C. got a 2-2 road draw at Chicago, a team that’s festered at the bottom of the standings for years, and a 4-1 romp last week over Orlando City, a club that’s a mess right now and played shorthanded after a red card.

Results are all that matter right now, and United has found a way to get points that it desperately needs to cling to a playoff spot, but this is still a beatable team.

Still missing

There are still question marks about the status of Wil Trapp and Federico Higuain for Columbus. I’m guessing there’s no way we see the latter. As for the former, I’d also be suprised, though less so. Trapp’s presence, though, might be the easiest to replace at the moment.

Nicolai Naess has done an admirable job of filling Trapp’s role in the defensive midfield, even if he has to play it a little bit differently. The central attacking midfield role, though, has been a revolving door with no answer. Tony Tchani has gotten a couple of starts there, though just one full-game runout. Dilly Duka fits that spot, although his impact has been minimal.

Crew SC has an opportunity to take advantage of defensive-midfield turmoil for DCU, but doesn’t have the obvious pieces to do it. That could make Naess even more important — Columbus may need him to make a couple of his long, counter-springing passes through the gaps that could come from an unfamiliar piece in the center of the field for D.C.

Keep on countering

Columbus is going to win the battle of possession, likely by a solid margin. For all the strides D.C. has taken during its recent stretch in shaking its perception as a boring, bunkering side, it’s still going to concede a good amount of possession.

That said, Crew SC needs to keep striking on the counter attack, something it has embraced as of late.

Three weeks ago in a 2-2 draw with New York Red Bulls, United conceded 55 percent of the possession, yet a big chunk of NYRB opportunities — including the second goal — came on the counter. Orlando City had a similar percentage of possession last week, despite being down a man for 24 minutes.

The Black & Gold need to stick with what’s been working during their recent improved run — don’t be afraid to get out quickly and take your chance, as opposed to slowing things down to maintain possession.

Odd note

This is of little relevance, but it is a strange anomaly, and one that has certainly had an impact on D.C.’s results — six of DCU’s last 13 matches have seen a red card. That’s nearly 50 percent (and three of the last six is 50 percent). Of those six, four of them were shown to the opposing team. Two of those turned out to be United wins, and two ended in draws. There’s little doubt that’s helped them earn points down the stretch.

MLS conspiracy theorists, unite!

The situation

I’m not going to get into the math because, well, I haven’t gotten into math in about a decade. But here’s the long and short of it — tonight is not technically a must-win game. Even if the Black & Gold drop this one, a win on Saturday would keep hope alive.

That doesn’t, however, mean this game is not huge. It’s essentially a six-point game and a victory would leave Columbus with a game in hand as it pushes down the final stretch and try to make up points.

Of course, at this point, every game is the biggest game of the season for Crew SC.