We’ve already recapped the challenge in front of Columbus Crew SC. You don’t need to be a math major to understand that the Black & Gold’s chances of salvaging the season at this point are slim to none.
Even those of you of the most optimistic persuasion understand that anything less than full points at home the rest of the way and you might as well throw out the baby and the bath water and the 2016 season.
That starts Saturday night when Crew SC hosts the Vancouver Whitecaps at MAPFRE Stadium.
Vancouver hasn’t been good, and although it sits a few points closer to the playoffs than Columbus, the Western Conference is also a tougher egg to crack. So both these teams are playing for it all right now.
What does that mean for Saturday? Here’s a quick look.
Struggles in perspective
The Whitecaps sit ninth in the Western Conference. They are winless in eight games. They’ve lost six of their last seven. They practically make Columbus’ form look good.
Yet, still, Vancouver has a better mathematical shot at making the playoffs than Crew SC does.
It’s been that kind of season for the Black & Gold.
There’s no other way to put it — both these teams are bad. And both are, despite the long odds, fighting for their lives. That might be the difference in this one. Which club wants it more?
Style of play
These two teams are polar opposites when it comes to style of play, even if they play out of the same 4-2-3-1 formation, which we assume Columbus will return to with a mostly full roster again.
Vancouver doesn’t look for possession (which I’ll touch on in a second) and is actually second in the league with 30 percent of its play in its own third of the field. They sit deep with big, physical center backs like Tim Parker and Kendall Waston, and try to get goals on the break — a fine strategy, but one that just hasn’t worked out, as the Caps have struggled to find success in the attack and the defense just hasn’t been good enough. They actually have the worst expected goals against number (46.62) in Major League Soccer, according to American Soccer Analysis.
The issues with the attack? The team’s top two players in terms of xG+xA this season are Octavio Rivero and Fabian Espindola. Both of those players were sold to other teams, the latter after having only been with the club for a week.
Nicolas Mezquida is third in that statistical category, but the forward showed last week against New York Red Bulls that while he’s a dangerous player, he’s not a polished goal-scorer. This is maybe the least egregious of four or five decent chances he failed to finish on:
When the team does attack, it tends to do so on the left half of the field (third in MLS in terms of build-up from the central channel left), where it uses attacking midfielder Pedro Morales (team-high 10.9 touch percentage) and Cristian Techera (team-high 30 key passes). Morales has obvious skill, but has not settled into the game the way he did in his sparkling debut campaign of 2014.
Watch the counter, stay in touch
Vancouver is very deliberate in how they play. They don’t want possession (47.8 percent is 18th out of 20 teams in MLS). They concede the ball, then try to spring on the counter and catch teams off guard. By creating chaos, they either get a good look or draw a foul — the Whitecaps are among the league leaders in goals from set pieces and penalties. Meanwhile, they have the fewest goals in the league from open play (14).
Long story short, the Black & Gold have to be aware of where they’re taking chances, and making sure they’re not turning the ball over in bad spots on the field. Vancouver has speed in the attack to get in behind, and will constantly look to do that with the long ball.
The back line and defensive mids can’t lose the Whitecap attackers. The numbers play it out — this team is lacking a pure finisher — and some basic film study shows that guys like Mezquida can be neutralized simply by forcing them to make decisions. Give those guys something to think about, apply a little pressure to Morales to siphon away service and Vancouver has yet to prove it can still produce goals.
And when the Caps are on the ball, watch for shots outside the box, because they will take them.
Back at full strength
Mostly. Columbus was so strapped last week by personnel absences, Gregg Berhalter was forced to play a 4-4-2, starting Nicolai Naess in the center of midfield. I could be wrong, but it may be the first time in Berhalter’s tenure that Crew SC started a game in anything other than 4-2-3-1, that’s how consistent he’s been in his approach. (If you remember otherwise, post in the comments)
This week should be less of an issue, though how returning players handle what might be the third game in a week for some of them will be interesting.
A couple of things to keep an eye on:
• With Wil Trapp still out, how will Tony Tchani and Mohammed Saeid work together as the defensive midfield pairing? As separate pieces they both add a lot to the club, but they weren’t necessarily a perfect pairing during Trapp’s absence last season.
• What goes on at center back? This is kind of the moment we’ve been waiting for — to see how Berhalter handles his center backs when they are all capable of playing. After going 45 minutes last week, is Gaston Sauro ready for 90? Can the team afford to play him if he’s not, being forced to “waste” a sub on a CB? If he is, who takes the bench? The new but positive addition of Naess? The veteran captain Michael Parkhurst? Either way, it opens the door to more rotation in the center back pairing, and I’ve contended all season that any struggles on Parkhurst’s part have been at least in part due to no consistency in terms of a center back pairing.